Nepeta cataria, commonly known as catnip, catswort, catwort, and catmint, is a species of the genus Nepeta in the family Lamiaceae, native to southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of China. It is widely naturalized in northern Europe, New Zealand, and North America. The common name catmint can also refer to the genus as a whole.
The names catnip and catmint are derived from the intense attraction about two-thirds of cats have toward them (alternative plants exist). In addition to its uses with cats, catnip is an ingredient in some herbal teas (or tisanes), and is valued for its sedative and relaxant properties.
Nepeta cataria is a short-lived perennial, herbaceous plant that grows to be 50–100 cm (20–40 in) tall and wide, which blooms from late spring through autumn. In appearance, N. cataria resembles a typical member of the mint family of plants, featuring brown-green foliage with the characteristic square stem of the plant family Lamiaceae. The coarse-toothed leaves are triangular to elliptical in shape. The small, bilabiate flowers of N. cataria are fragrant and are either pink in color or white with fine spots of pale purple.
Nepeta cataria was one of the many species described by Linnaeus in 1753 in his landmark work Species Plantarum. He had previously described it in 1738 as Nepeta floribus interrupte spicatis pedunculatis (meaning "Nepeta with flowers in a stalked, interrupted spike"), before the commencement of Linnaean taxonomy.
The plant is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. It can be a repellent for certain insects, including aphids and squash bugs. Catnip is best grown in full sunlight and grows as a loosely branching, low perennial.
Varieties include Nepeta cataria var. citriodora (or N. cataria subsp. citriodora), or "lemon catnip".
As an insect repellent
Nepetalactone is a mosquito and fly repellent. Oil isolated from catnip by steam distillation is a repellent against insects, in particular mosquitoes, cockroaches and termites. Research suggests that, while a more effective spatial repellant than DEET, it is not as effective as a repellent when used on the skin when compared with SS220 or DEET.
Effect on humans
Catnip has a history of use in traditional medicine for a variety of ailments such as stomach cramps, indigestion, fevers, hives, and nervous conditions. The plant has been consumed as a tisane, juice, tincture, infusion, or poultice, and has also been smoked. However, its medicinal use has fallen out of favor with the development of modern medicine.
Effect on felines
Catnip contains the feline attractant nepetalactone. N. cataria (and some other species within the genus Nepeta) are known for their behavioral effects on the cat family, not only on domestic cats, but also other species. Several tests showed that leopards, cougars, servals, and lynxes often reacted strongly to catnip in a manner similar to domestic cats; while lions and tigers can react strongly as well, they do not react as consistently.
With domestic cats, N. cataria is used as a recreational substance for pet cats' enjoyment, and catnip and catnip-laced products designed for use with domesticated cats are available to consumers. Common behaviors cats display when they sense the bruised leaves or stems of catnip are rubbing on the plant, rolling on the ground, pawing at it, licking it, and chewing it. Consuming much of the plant is followed by drooling, sleepiness, anxiety, leaping about, and purring. Some growl, meow, scratch, or bite at the hand holding it. The main response period after exposure is generally between 5 and 15 minutes, after which olfactory fatigue usually sets in.: p.107
A study published in January 2021 suggests that felines are specifically attracted to the iridoids nepetalactone and nepetalactol, present in catnip and silver vine, respectively. The compounds were found to repel mosquitos, and it is hypothesized that rubbing against the plants provides the cats with a chemical coat that protects them against mosquito bites.
Felines not affected by catnip
About one-third of cats are not affected by catnip. The behavior is hereditary. Other plants that have a catnip-like effect on cats include valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root and leaves; silver vine (Actinidia polygama), or matatabi, popular in Asia; and Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) wood. Many cats that do not respond to catnip do respond to one or more of these three alternatives.
A 1962 pedigree analysis of 26 cats in a Siamese breeding colony suggested that the catnip response was caused by a Mendelian-dominant gene, but a 2011 pedigree analysis of 210 cats in two breeding colonies (taking into account measurement error by repeated testing) showed no evidence for Mendelian patterns of inheritance but demonstrated heritabilities of h2 = 0.51–0.89 for catnip response behavior, indicating a polygenic liability threshold model.
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