I never knew that catnip was for cats. I grew up thinking it was a mild tea that took my nightmares away.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 21, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
There was a giant monster under my bed. I woke up hearing its growl, and even though I was covered from head to toe with four quilts and safe in the depths of the feather bed, I yelled long and loud. I slept upstairs and I could hear the mumble and grumble of my mother trying to get to me to see what had grabbed me this time. Most of the time in her haste she didn't bother with a light, of course it was not as dark downstairs in her bedroom as it was upstairs in mine, but she had to wait till she got to the top of the stairs to reach the string that pulled my light on. That took a long time, and I kept her on course by yelling with every breath. The light finally came on, and she peeled the layers of quilts away, and pulled me out of the depths of the featherbed so that I could see that there was no monster. She looked under the bed and in my closets. She even dug out a flashlight from my bottom drawer and told me to use it the next time I felt a monster coming on.
Flashlights in those days were long silver cylinders with a heavy covering over the light end. She told me to use that end as a weapon and fight my own monsters. It took me a while to realize that she was not feeling concern for me, she just couldn't sleep with all that yelling going on. Sometime during those days, I overheard my mother telling Aunt Bett that I was seeing monsters in my room at night, and she didn't know what she was going to do with me. She said I was yelling loud enough to wake the dead, and she had not been able to get a wink of sleep in a month of Sundays. She had decided that there might be something wrong with me. Aunt Bett said: "Now, Doris, I kin make you up some catnip tea, and you kin give it to her or you kin take it yoreself, either way, one of you is boundta sleep through the monsters." And so she did.
That was my introduction to catnip, and the end to my monsters in the middle of the night. I don't know whether my mother took it or not, because I was too busy sleeping.
Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb and a member of the mint family. I gathered its leaves for as long as I can remember, and sometimes they were used fresh, and at other times they were dried. Catnip is native to Europe and was used for many years as a popular garden herb in cooking, much in the same way as mint is used. Upon its introduction from Europe to North America, it escaped from gardens and spread across the continent so rapidly, most Native Americans included it in their inventory of useful plants and did not associate it with the coming of the Europeans. According to Aunt Bett, they had used the plant for centuries, but in doing some verification research, I find that can't be true, since it was not in our country until after the Europeans came. However, both the Native Americans and Aunt Bett agreed that it was a useful plant.
It grows to a height of about 3 feet. You can find it growing wild along roadsides and in dry fields. It has branching square stems and heart shaped leaves that are covered with tiny downy gray hairs, which give the whole plant a sort of grayish green appearance. It blooms in clusters of small white flowers from June to October. It does smell faintly of mint. Chewing catnip leaves has long been a folk remedy for a toothache, and sometimes catnip tea was also used to relieve a baby's colic. Even now, it is still used by herbalists to relieve insomnia. Aunt Bett always said the fresh leaves were much more effective than the dried, but she had to use the dried leaves in winter. Here is the recipe that she used in making catnip tea:
Bring about 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Remove the water from the heat and add 1 teaspoon of fresh cut catnip leaves, or the same amount of dried leaves and let steep for about 20 minutes until it is lukewarm. Honey may be added to sweeten, and I always took mine with honey. I made sure that mine was strained, too, because there was no way I could drink anything that had green lumps in it.
Now back to the cats. Long after my nightmare episodes, I learned about catnip and cats. When I was little I never saw Kitty Fluff get all excited about much of anything, and certainly never over catnip. I wondered about that until I found that until the leaves or stem of the catnip plant is torn or broken, there is nothing for them to get excited about. The excitement is caused by an oil the plants secrete to ward off insects that otherwise would eat the leaves. If they do come upon a plant with a torn leaf, then their ecstatic rolling and rubbing in the plant may destroy it entirely. They learn pretty quickly that the more they roll the happier they become.
It was interesting to find that in recent years there were widely publicized reports that catnip has similar effects on humans, that it is a mild hallucinogen when smoked or taken in a strong infusion. These reports have proven to be incorrect. Only the members of the feline family ever get high from catnip.
I have found it to be fun and successful to grow catnip in pots, many pots, some for me and some for my cats. It keeps the catnip contained, and my cats and I are pretty happy with the plan. I use huge pots for the cats, only one at a time, so that when they destroy the first one, I can give them another which they happily also destroy. I dry the leaves for their toys, and for winter, and use it to lure them to their scratching posts in order to save my furniture. My very own pot of catnip grows on a shelf on my potting bench, and the cats can hardly perch there since there is no room for them. It's a happy plan.
I don't need catnip tea very often, but it's there when the monsters come. I also find it helpful to sleep with a heavy flashlight very close to my bedside. The cats seem to like that arrangement, too, since sometimes they see monsters, as well.
Other information came from my collection of family writings.
Images are from Plant Files. A special thank you to these photographers: dybbuk, for the kitty in the thumbnail; Gabrielle, for the cluster of blooms; and Melody, for the image of the foliage.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.