Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Favorite Plant- Catnip by Ashley McNamara

Catmint cultivar, "Walker's Low"
Catnip and lime tree

I love catnip, Nepeta cataria! I confess it's probably not for the same reason that my tabby does (a chemical in catnip, nepetalactone, is chemically similar to the pheromones produced by a housecat's anal glands!) I love it because it smells sweet, looks pretty, has medicinal uses and above all, does well at my house with very little care. Actually, I should extend that love to include all the different species of Nepeta, which are more collectively called catmint.

When my younger son was an infant, he was a colicky little thing, but something that really helped him was catnip tea consumed by his mama. Catnip is used medicinally as a carminative, which means that it helps get rid of intestinal gas. The chemicals in catnip that do this are readily secreted in breast milk. I will always associate the smell and taste of catnip tea with the sweetness of holding my tiny son. Catnip's volatile oils are also believed to have sedative and antispasmodic properties in humans. These same chemicals make it a good companion plant in the vegetable garden, and it is recommended for planting alongside potatoes and leafy greens to ward off common pest insects. By contrast, it is a draw for beneficial insects. One beekeeper I know recommends planting catnip near bee boxes since bees love to visit the flowers, and the volatile oils seem to help control Varoa mites. Catnip is also a food source for some butterfly species. Deer and rabbits,on the other hand, don't care for it much- a nice plus virtually anywhere in North America.

Catnip and its relatives, the catmints, are native to Europa and Asia, and in wetter climates they can become invasive. Actually, one source, Weeds of Nebraska and the Great Plains (Stubendieck et al., 1994) lists catnip as an invasive weed. This does not seem to be a big problem in the harsh and arid Rockies however, although these plants will occasionally self-seed. They do spread and enlarge through risomes; these can be dug up and tossed on the compost pile if the plants seem to be getting too large, or used to divide the plants and share them with other gardeners. Many distinct species and varieties of Nepeta exist, and some nice cultivars are easily found at independent garden centers. The ones I am familiar with have a distinctive simple heart-shaped leaf with serrated edges and flowers born on tall racemes in colors from the palest lavender to pink to deep purply-blue. One variety of the species Nepeta racemes, "Walker's Low", was named the perennial plant of the year in 2007 by the Perennial Plant Association. It has smaller leaves than Nepeta cataria and flowers in a striking violet hue. Another cultivar, "Little Trudy" is recommended by PlantTalk Colorado.  

Catnip does best with full sun in spot that is protected from blasting winter winds. It is somewhat drought tolerant, but it likes occasional deep watering, so it is a good plant to locate near the downspouts on a building. Rocky, alkaline soil doesn't much phase it. Mine have survived complete neglect for months on end. How can I not love this plant?!

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