Botanical Name: Nepeta cataria
Common Names: Catnip
Primary Characteristics for Field ID:
The classic square stem and opposite leaves of the mint family.
Part Used for Medicine:
The leaves are the primary parts used although flowers and fresh tips can also be included. The stems are large enough that they should be avoided.
Habitat in Which it is Found/ Harvesting Season/ Special Considerations:
Nepeta is not native to the southwest although it grows freely in the right conditions. I have seen it in some surprisingly remote areas along shady streams and seeps in Oak Creek Canyon and in the Grand Canyon. It is often found near old homesteads. Once established, it needs less water than many mint family plants.
There are garden center hybrids and some plants that are labeled catmint. If you want to use this plant therapeutically, make sure you have the botanical name correct.
The size of catnip varies greatly, depending on available moisture and the soil. On our property it rarely grows beyond 15”, even with additional water and soil amending. In the wild, it has been seen up to 5’ tall in ideal conditions. Ideal here means in the shade, along a stream where the micro-climate is cool and moist and the roots are reaching the water table.
Harvest and Drying:
It can be harvested anytime during the growing season. Depending on the climate, two cuttings can often be gathered from the plant. We usually do one in June and another in late August, if the plant looks healthy.
The leaves are the part used for medicine. The square stem is large enough that we find it worthwhile to strip the leaves after the drying is complete. In general, the medicine is found in the functional rather than structural parts of a plant.
Functional means leaves, flowers, berries, roots or the inner bark where juices are flowing. Structural is the heartwood of a tree, larger tree branches or the older woody stems on herbs. Remember, this is a general rule and there are exceptions.
The leaves are best left on the stems while they dry. We find the stems help keep the leaves separated during the drying process. Placing a large amount of leaf matter (without stems or branches) into a space for drying can result in them clumping and spoiling.
Drying works well by spreading the plant on a door or window screen that is resting on some wood blocks. There are many more elaborate ways to dry herbs but we like to keep it simple.
Moving air is your friend during the drying process. Heat and sunlight will degrade the quality of the herb once it has been picked.
As a bitter and gentle nervine, taken before meals, it improves digestive problems, especially those caused by nerves. It can be combined with chamomile or lemon balm for this. Add a touch of licorice or honey and you have a tasty tea for all ages.
Combined with peppermint, the pleasant tasting tea is useful for gas, bloating, nausea or a general after-dinner type beverage.
It is a gentle nervine and can be drunk during the day. It is much less likely to cause drowsiness than some of the stronger herbs such as hops or passionflower. It helps take the edge off a stress-filled lifestyle.
Catnip is classified as a relaxing diaphoretic. This is a term that refers to the ability to release tension and heat from the core of the body, out to the skin surface. This induces perspiration which can be an aid when working to lower a high fever. It can be combined with yarrow, peppermint or elderflower for this purpose.
Catnip is considered a gentle yet effective herb. It doesn’t overpower the body systems; rather it tends to calmly nudge them in the right direction. For this reason, it is a favorite to use with children.
Preferred Method of Preparation:
Dried as a tea or a fresh plant tincture
The Plant Profiles are brief materia medica summaries of plants encountered during plant walks or introduced during class on our longer programs. They are presented here to help students organize plant info on an ongoing basis. Although the Profiles are not meant to be comprehensive, they are offered here to the public in the hope that others find these pages useful.