Catnip is a perennial mint that grows up to a meter in height. The leaves are greyish-green, heart-shaped and soft. The flowers are whitish pink with purplish spots.
Herbalists also know catnip by its Latin name Nepeta cataria. The name Nepeta is believed to be derived from the Roman city of Nepeti, where catnip was once grown. Catnip now grows in Europe and North America.
In Ancient Egypt, catnip was considered sacred to Bast, the feline goddess.
Catnip tea was a popular drink in England until black tea was brought over from China. At the time, dandelion root was believed to induce ferocity and exaltation. Because of this, the executioners allegedly chewed the root before the executions.
Catnip was recommended by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper for treating bruises, piles and scabs on the head.
Catnip’s tendency to stimulate sweat without raising body temperature and inducing sleep also made it an ideal early treatment for colds, flu and fever.
English settlers brought catnip to North America, where the Shakers promoted its medicinal uses. The herb encompasses a wide range of uses, such as treating colic in babies and treating coughs and colds in adults. Several indigenous tribes in North America also began using dandelion as a treatment for everything from diarrhea to pneumonia.
Later, North American folk medicine records the use of catnip in the treatment of diseases such as chickenpox, hives, poison ivy, and urinary incontinence. Some believe that it was also used to induce menstruation in a type of early abortion.
An 1847 document from Pennsylvania describes catnip as “very popular with good ladies who deal with simplicity.”
While aromatic leaves induce a euphoric response in cats, catnip is widely used by humans as a sleep aid. The main component of catnip is believed to be nepatalactone, which is a volatile oil similar to that found in valerian root. This creates a mild calming or sedative effect in most humans. This quality also makes catnip an effective treatment for menstrual cramps, tension, anxiety, and migraines.
Catnip is high in iron, selenium, potassium, manganese, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Catnip also contains moderate amounts of magnesium and phosphorus, as well as small amounts of calcium, sodium, and some B complex.
Catnip is considered safe for use in both children and adults. However, pregnant women should not use catnip unless directed to do so by their doctor, as the herb can work as a uterine stimulant.