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Cats and dogs and mint, oh my

May 30, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

This spring the rain has come in buckets. There have been torrents, which in the west they call gullywashers. It has rained cats and dogs.

Buckets, torrents and gullywashers are suitably descriptive of heavy rain, but cats and dogs - wherever does that come from? Some say it derives from the Greek word catadupe - a waterfall. Others suggest the source is the Latin cata doxas - contrary to experience.

To my way of thinking, mythology outweighs etomology.

Throughout history, cats have been linked to the weather. In Northern Europe, the cat was thought to have great power over the rain and wind. In ancient Japan, a wind god, who took on the form of a cat, was believed to slash the sky open with its claws to bring rain.

It would seem that the weather cat who is clawing such huge holes in our clouds needs to be distracted so the holes would be smaller and the rain would fall more gently on our gardens. Perhaps some catnip would do the trick.

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The smell of catnip (Nepeta Cataria) contains the chemical nepetalactone, (as does valerian - Valeriana officinalis and Canadian honeysuckle - Lonicera tatarica canadensis). Nepetalactone causes cats to frisk about, pawing, marking, clasping, rolling onto one side and kicking. This response mimics their hunting behavior. The euphoria lasts six minutes or less, then the cat walks away. It will be several hours before the catnip will again get any reaction from the cat.

It is interesting to note that when eaten, rather than smelled, both catnip and valerian induce sleep rather than frenzied activity. Catnip is not harmful to cats.

Catnip is not a universal feline hallucinogen - young kittens and older cats completely ignore it - as do 30 percent of adult cats. Sensitivity to catnip seems to be an inherited trait.

There is an old saying that:

"If you set it, the cats will et it,

If you sow it, the cats don't know it."

Obviously when you "set it"- put a plant in the ground - you release the scent and it attracts the cat. Seeds remain scentless until they grow into plants and are touched.

In earlier times people used catnip tea to alleviate feverish illnesses and insomnia. Catnip was also used as a food seasoning.

Researchers are investigating the possibility that nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip, may be more effective in repelling mosquitoes than the DEET that is found in most commercial insect repellents. I, for one, will be adding a lot of catnip to the pennyroyal (another repellant) wreath that decorates my garden hat.

If you have a cat you may want to pot up some catnip to dry and use in cat toys. It will provide a cheap thrill to your feline companion.

Catnip is not an especially ornamental plant. It grows to a rangy two to four feet tall and the flowers are small. It is a mint, so the pot will keep it from running roughshod over your whole garden. If cats are not your thing, other members of the nepeta family, the cat mints, may hold more interest. They are not nearly as pushy as some other mints.

I have developed a real fondness for Catmint (Nepeta x fassenii) as a border plant. It forms a 12-by-18-inch-high mound and produces a profusion of small, long-lasting, bright blue flowers. They first appear in June and, if sheared back after the blooms fade, will bloom again and again until frost.

Last year, I added Nepeta "Six Hills Giant" to the garden and was delighted with the result. The 36-inch-tall, globe-shaped plant produced a steady crop of gorgeous, blue flowers that were substantially bigger and more interesting than the N. x fassenii.

Both these plants thrive in sandy, or at least well-drained, dry soils. They do not need fertilizer. All catmints thrive in full sun. They are hardy and pest free.

This year I hope to find a source for Nepeta subsessilis. Catalog descriptions suggest that unlike the other nepetas it will tolerate moist soil. It blooms later and the larger, lavender -blue flowers appear in cluster at the tip of the stem rather than along the stems as do N. fassenii and N. "Six Hills."

Whether you garden for your cat or yourself, explore the Nepeta family. You might even go frisking about the garden with delight at the results.

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