Nip Kitty

About Cat Plants

Though Catnip (Nepeta cataria) had long been known for the kinds of responses it elicited from cats, until about 50 years ago, there were only a couple of published reports on the plant. Since that time, there have been a large number of studies including one which found that of a sample of 84 cats, one third did not respond to catnip. Another found that the response typically lasted not longer than fifteen minutes and that a cat had to be at least 8 weeks old before it found the plant interesting. A compound called nepetalactone was isolated from catnip in the early 1940's. It was tested on several African lions, who responded to pieces of cloth soaked in the chemical in a fashion similar to the way they responded to the whole plant. Lions and domestic cats are not the only felines that respond to catnip, a plant native to Europe but now found growing wil d in much of the U.S. There have been a number of studies which have tried to determine which other cats are attracted by catnip. Jaguars, leopards, ocelots, and marguays tend to respond positively to the plant while tigers and pumas seem not to care for it.  And while one study found that bobcats were indifferent to it, some hunters regard the oil of catnip as an essential tool for capturing both bobcats and pumas. Aside from being a catplant, catnip has a long history of human use. It was used as a tea in the days before real tea was imported from the orient and also as a medicinal herb to treat a variety of complaints. The chemical mentioned above, nepetalactone, has been found to be a mild sedative. It also has been found to possess insect-repellant properties, and possibly rat-repellant properties as well. While generally it is the flowering tops and leaves that are employed medicinally, it is reported that chewing the root makes "even the most gentle person, fierce and quar relsome." This report conflicts with the more commonly conceived notions about catnip, namely that it is an herb which has a generally calmative effect.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a plant with a long history of use as a medicinal plant for a large number of disorders. It is said to have been used to treat insomnia since pre-Christian times. The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants states that it is the leading over-the-counter tranquilizer in Europe. And cats like it, too! But, for cats, it acts as a stimulant rather than as a sedative. The roots of valerian contain actinidine, and it is likely this substance which makes it attractive to cats. Valerian has another group of fans - rats. Though rats are said to actively dislike catnip (could it just be the name?) they can be caught in traps baited with valerian. It is even thought by some that the reason the Pied Piper of Hamlin was able to get the rats to follow him out of town was that his pockets were full of valerian roots. And while just about everyone has probably heard of catnip, and a certain number of folks may also be familiar with the cat- attracting properties of valerian, there are a large number of other plants that have been found to be of interest to cats, or are known to contain chemicals that cats react to. The first one I ran into I saw at the Baltimore Herb Festival a few years ago.
Cat Thyme
It was called Cat Thyme (Teucrium marum), a small shrub native to the Mediterranean region. I bought a small plant and was promised that it would be even more intriguing to cats than catnip. Indeed, one of my cats immediately sought it out - and periodically visited the plant where I put it in the yard. However, none of the others paid any attention to it. This species has long been known to be attractive to cats, though Mrs. Grieve makes no mention of this characteristic in her entry on the p lant. She reports about the uses that have been made of it by humans, rather than felines. The powdered leaves have been recommended as excellent for "disorders of the head" and used to be added to wine or mixed with other ingredients and taken as snuff.
The Silver Vine
The Silver Vine (Actinidia polygama) is used horticulturally but some some gardeners no doubt get a bit of a surprise when they find that cats are "put into such a frenzy by the plant that they sometimes tear the plants to pieces." (This is what the Encyclopedia of Horticulture says about the plant.) It is reported that the twigs and young leaves of the plant have been used for centuries in the orient to tranquilize large cats in zoos. But it appears that felines were not the only ones on whom "cat powder" had an effect. The powdered plant used to be added to saki to increase the effects of the alcohol. (You yourself are likely to have eaten the fruit of a di fferent Actinidia. The Latin name for the Kiwi fruit is Actinidia deliciosa.) One of the major physiologically active ingredients in the Silver Vine is actinidine. An additional compound (dihydroactinidiolide) in it, that also is a cat attractant, has been found as a trace compound in black tea, cured tobacco, heated mango and the red imported fire ant! There are a number of other plants that have chemicals in them, which, when isolated, have produced the catnip response in cats.
The circumboreal Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), which occurs as far south as Virginia and California, contains a chemical with the delightful name of mitsugashiwalactone which triggers the reaction in cats. A plant that is found in northwestern North America which is in the same family as Squawroot and Beechdrops has had two compounds isolated from it that have proved to be attractive to cats. (This is Boschniakia rossica in the Orobanch aceae.) The small tree, Yellowbells (Tecoma stans), a Florida native, contains both one of the chemicals from the previous plant (boschniakine) as well as actinidine. However, whether cats are actually attracted to the tree is reported to be unknown. Another very common plant, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), reportedly contains boschniakine but, as in the case of Yellowbells, the attraction of cats to the Trumpet Creeper is likewise unknown. Other plants that have been reported to attract cats: Cranberry Bush (Viburnum opulus), Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), Baby Blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii), Lippia javanica, Nepeta nepetella, Valeriana phu, and V. celtica.