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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Catnip gone wild – help your cat roll his own

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By Bob Confer

Allegany County is chock full of cat lovers. So, it’s only fitting that the county has an abundance of catnip growing wild. Here’s the buzz about that plant:

What catnip looks — and smells — like

 A transplant from Europe, which may have originally had its roots in Asia, catnip is a member of the mint family. Like all mints — including those more commonly ingested by humans — it has a square stem.

It has small white flowers with purple-pink spots that can be found in mass on spikes emanating from the stem. The leaves are somewhat ovate with heart-shaped bases and a little fuzz on the underside. The plant stands one to three feet tall when mature.

When you break the leaves or stems it has a distinct, unmistakable smell — it’s not so much minty as it is musky, kind of like cheap cologne.

Where to find catnip

Now is the perfect time of year to find catnip, as it is in bloom now through September.

It prefers full sun and drier soils and is one of the first plants to “reclaim” soils when plant life is removed. That means you can find it in good numbers on most farms around here, as they will grow on field edges, in pastures, and in barnyards.

Those who don’t live near a farm should also give a look at lawn edges, the outsides of abandoned parking lots, along our rail trails, or at construction sites throughout cities and villages.

Catnip for your cat

If you want to act like a drug dealer for your cat and give her a good time, pick her some catnip.

Rather than the dry, wimped-out mix that is found in pet toys, wild catnip, of course, will be more potent and your cat will love you for it.

You can pick a whole plant and give it to a cat. She will roll around on it and become euphoric. It is the smell that does it — it binds to their olfactory receptors and gives them incredible pleasure (there is no known plant that has that same effect on humans). The “high,” if you will, will typically last no more than 10 minutes as the cat’s sense of smell actually becomes overwhelmed, even fatigued.

If you notice your cat eating and licking the stems and leaves, don’t worry. She won’t O.D. or get sick; she is only doing that to break the plant and release more smells.

If your cat has no interest in catnip, don’t worry about that either. It does not mean she has no sense of smell. Appreciation of or resistance to catnip is hereditary — two-thirds of domesticated cats dig the weed.

If you want to save catnip for later use, you can do that. Pick it, dry it in shade and then crumble and save the leaves and stems in a Ziploc bag, away from moisture.


Catnip for your consumption and use

 Humans have long had an affinity for catnip, though it is only a fraction as popular as it once was.

People cannot get high off the plant, even though the Journal of the American Medical Association said otherwise in the late-1960s. That controversial article was proven to be bunk as it featured photos of marijuana (identified as catnip) and described catnip’s appearance as looking like marijuana (not even close). The scientist who did the study had no working knowledge of botany.

The reason that catnip is here is because enterprising Europeans brought it here in the 1700s as a commercial crop for human consumption. As with all mints, it has its use in tea. You can steep the leaves (green or dried) for a powerful, maybe pungent tea, almost like the citrus-based bergamot oil used in Earl Grey tea.

Over the centuries, people have attributed its herbal magic to these and other powers:

  • Romans used it to treat leprosy 
  • It helps with sore throats and colds
  • It may have slight calming, sedative effects
  • Catnip can increase menstrual flow
  • The leaves can serve as an after-dinner digestive aid

Beyond ingesting the plant and its oils, people have use for catnip as an insect repellent. Many old-fashioned mosquito repellents featured catnip and some folks will walk around with a sprig of it in their shirt pocket to keep biting insects away.

Hardcore all-natural gardeners will plant catnip around and in their gardens as it allegedly keeps insects off their crops. As we get away from GMOs and pesticides, this use for catnip is actually seeing a major resurgence.

Catnip is an interesting plant and one of the few alien species that is a welcome, unobtrusive addition to our local environment. Give it a try — for your cat, for you, for your garden.

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