Friday, August 31, 2012

The Allure Of Catnip

Nepeta 'Walker's Low'
The Allure Of Catnip

Animals of many sorts have found their pleasures among common weeds. Wandering cats apparently found theirs around Nepi (Nepete), Italy. The town became for them a little Etruscan resort on a hill. The plant was a kind of mint, a member of the Lamiaceae family. So closely associated was it with the town that it was eventually called Nepeta (pronounced NEP-eh,tuh), aka Catnip, Catmint. Nepeta is native to most of Europe.

As cats set off to discover the New World, they carried dried leaves and and seeds with them. Dried herbs for the long trip. Seeds for colonization when they arrived. Large quantities, sometimes of inferior quality, were transported and sold in unmarked burlap sacks, un chat en poche.

There are about 250 species worldwide. Only 4 species of Nepeta are widely distributed in North America.

Catnip is often enjoyed by humans, but not in the same way as their feline owners. Catnip tea is said to promote relaxation, so is used as a sleep aid. It can also reduce sinus congestion.

Catnip plants are wonderful for the herb garden. The alluring flowers and aroma are pleasing. In addition to cats, they attract honey bees and butterflies.

Many gardeners grow catnip for the sole purpose of serving their cats and laughing at their drunken antics. Kind of like watching Foster Brooks on Youtube.

All cats are not so influenced by catnip. Ours shows no interest. Not a bit. Nevertheless, my wife and daughter drop sprigs on the floor because cats are supposed to adore it.  Perhaps our cat is simply too proud to have it served on a rug.

Lavender flower spikes, held above aromatic silver-green foliage, bloom from late spring until frost. Nepeta foliage is evergreen in warmer climates to semi-evergreen in cooler zones.

Catnip prefers full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4 to 8. Plant in average garden soil that is slightly moist with pH ranging from 6.0 to 7.5. Take a sample to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis. The fee is nominal.

If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8 inches deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4 inches to 6 inches of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants between 12 inches to 24 inches apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1 inch deep.

In addition to herb gardens, catnip is great for butterfly gardens, medicinal gardens, and perennial borders. Cat fanciers with limited growing space can grow catnip in containers. If you live in an area where dry spells are frequent, you'll be relieved to know that catnip is drought-tolerant once established. If you're besieged by deer, catnip is deer resistant.

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