I had this article in a little publication called "Wild Foods Forum," P.O. Box 61413, Virginia Beach, VA 23462 in mid-1994. (No email address!!)
Note: It now even has a webpage.
A couple of months ago, when renewing my subscription, I wrote a little note to the editor. The paper I happened to have at hand had some xeroxed plant drawings on it. One of them, Teucrium marum, caught Deb's eye, as its common name was given as "Herbe aux chats." The next WFF I received included a little note from Deb in which she commented about the plant. I decided to write her a note to tell her what I knew about the Teucrium, as well as to comment on a couple of other things. Since her fax number was readily available, I decided to fax the note to her rather than send it by snailmail. Deb noticed my e-mail address at the top of my note and replied to me via e-mail. She soon suggested that I write about Cat-plants and that is how this article came to be.
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 wild 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. Evidence to the contrary - at least for the latter discovered in 2006.) (ANd Big Cat Rescue posted a video about this issue in 2010.) 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 quarrelsome." 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. 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 plant. 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 (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 different 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 Orobanchaceae.) 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.
A final note: plants are not alone in containing these cat attracting substances. A number of ants and other insects have been found to contain nepetalactone (found in catnip) and actinidine (found in Valerian and Silver Vine) as well as some of the other chemicals that provoke the catnip response. It has been hypothesized that these chemicals protect both the plants and the insects against harmful insects, whether herbivorous or insectivorous!
1. Cherfas, Jeremy. "How to Thrill Your Cat This Christmas," New Scientist, Dec. 24, 1987, pp.42-45.
2. Emboden, William. _Narcotic Plants_,
3. Foster, Steven and Duke, James. _A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants_, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
4. Grieve, M. _A Modern Herbal_, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1931.
5. Mowrey, Daniel. _The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine_, Cormorant Books, 1986.
6. Tucker, Arthur and Tucker, Sharon. "Catnip and the Catnip Response," Economic Botany, 42(2), 1988, pp. 214-231.
An article on the Suite Spot entitle "Planting the Cats: A Theme Garden." Another article from the same webpage entitled "Uprooting the Cats: A Survival Manual for Gardeners."
"That little kitten is doomed." That was how my friend referred to a little gray kitten that had come into her apartment through an open door - and had stayed for two days despite repeated attempts to get it back outside. The frantic little creature was quite deft at escaping just at the moment the erstwhile captors thought they were about to meet with success. Eventually, the door was just left open and when my friend returned home that evening - found that her uninvited guest had gone back to its home, into a crack underneath the house. I arrived the next day for a spell of cat sitting while my friend left town for a few days and was immediately told the story of the little intruder. I decided that I would try to tame the wild little thing. A long string was the first tool I used. The kitten just couldn't resist that string and would come out chasing it when I put one end in the hole under the house. As long I was a substantial distance away, the kitten would follow the string, retreating back into the hole if ever it sensed I was getting a little too close. Then I got the idea of tying a long stalk of catnip to the end of the string. The kitten was so enamored of the catnip that eventually I was able to begin shortening the string so that finally I was just holding the 3' stalk of catnip. I was amazed that the kitten was now allowing me to get that short a distance away. In short order, I moved my hand all the way up the stalk of nip until I was actually petting the little cat, and it was purring! She no longer feared me and when I returned to Maryland, she made the move, too. (My friend had not been interested in adding to her household.)