Catnip: Not just for cats anymore

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You may be familiar with catnip as an herb that cats can’t seem to stay away from. It is also an herb in the mint family that can often be found commonly growing throughout the United States as a naturalized alien plant.

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Catnip, or Nepeta cataria by its scientific name, is delicious to nibble on. It is known medicinally for its relaxing properties. It is one of the first plants we learned about at a Black Belt Winter Retreat for this purpose; as the catnip tea was brewing and the kitchen filled with the smell of the herb, all who breathed it in could feel its relaxing qualities. It can be taken as a tea to remedy insomnia, especially that which is induced by anxiety. Master Pearson has cautioned me not to take it regularly for more than a few days as it can cause dependence.

My most recent experiment with catnip was for a different purpose. Catnip is also known for its ability to aid digestion. I was not aware of the strong potential of the herb in this area until I experienced stomach cramps that lasted for more than a few days, long enough for me to think I should probably try some kind of remedy to help me heal. I came to use catnip because it was one of the things I already had in my cupboard, and because it is a relatively mild herb. I like to start with mild herbs, as they are less likely to lead to any kind of negative side effects. In this case, I did experience a side effect of enjoying a good night’s rest. After only a few doses my stomach quickly returned to normal. The preparation of catnip for its different uses is recommended as follows, according to Tom Brown Jr., in his book Tom Brown’s Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants;

“My first medicinal introduction to catnip came during a sweat-lodge ceremony. I was quite dirty, from a hot, dusty hike, to a point where the dirt was caked on my skin. I was also having trouble with an infected hair follicle on my shoulder, due to the rubbing of a strap from a heavy bundle. Grandfather said that a sweat lodge would help clean my pores and get the duct of the hair follicle working again so it could drain. After drinking plenty of water, Grandfather gave me a big mug of very strong catnip tea. He explained that the tea would promote profuse sweating very much like the yarrow, and sweat I did. It felt as if my body had become a waterfall, and I could feel my pores blown wide open. As I exited the sweat lodge, I felt cleaner than I ever had before. The next day, any traces of the abscess and pus buildup were gone. I did, however, find it necessary to drink almost two gallons of water in the next twenty-four hours.

To make a good tea, use the fresh herb made from the new green leaves for a strong tea, the dried herb from the new green leaves for a regular tea [you can often buy dried herbs in bulk at a natural food store- Ms. Doll]. Use one small palmful of broken leaves to about one cup of boiling water. Let the tea steep for ten to twenty minutes depending on the strength of the tea needed. Dosage is one to three cups a day, not to exceed four days. Tea is also good for pain, cramps, and intestinal problems, and has a soothing quality that has a calming effect on most people.

The best leaves to collect are from plants growing in a partially suny area, preferably with a southeast exposure. Collect leaves before the flowerheads develop. For milder teas, collect the leaves as the flowerhead is developing, or until the seeds are produced. I find that one of the most potent stages of the plant is when it is collected either in early spring or the second blooming of late fall. As an herbalist, I collect the plant beginning in the spring, and ending in fall when it turns brown. I place the collection in separate containers and label them accordingly so they can fit the needs of the people that come to me.

The general tea dosages are as follows: to induce sweating, one cup of strong tea made by steeping the dried leaves for twenty minutes in hot water. To relieve pain, steep the dried or green leaves in hot water from seven to twelve minutes. To relieve stomach cramps and intestinal disorders, double the dosage of herb to one cup of water and simmer for fifteen minutes; this can be taken hot or cold, depending on the season. For a soothing tea that promotes relaxation, use the tiny leaves which are found below the developing flowerheads and that have been dried in a cool, dry place; allow these leaves to steep for twenty minutes.”

Catnip is also used for toothaches, as reported in Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Healing Herbs & Spices by John Heinerman:

“Rural residents of the Ozark and Appalachian Mountains employ either mashed fresh catnip leaves or the dried herb powder as a crude poultice application directly to sore gums or aching teeth, to relieve the intense pain and suffering. If the powder is to be used, a piece of cotton is moistened with water and then some of the powder applied on the surfaces, after which the cotton is put into the mouth and held firmly against the aching tooth or jut rubbed on the gums for quick relief. The fresh leaves seem to bring nearly instant relief, while the dried powder takes a little longer to work.”

Another use of catnip, also from Heinerman’s Encyclopedia, is as an eyewash:

“A strong catnip tea can be used as an effective eyewash to relieve inflammation and swelling due to certain airborne allergies, cold and flu, and excess alcoholic intake (“bloodshot eye” syndrome). Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add 5 tsp. of cut fresh leaves. Reduce to low heat and let simmer for only 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep an additional 50 minutes. Strain and refrigerate in a clean fruit jar. Use as an eyewash with an eye cup several times each day. Or soak a clean terry-cloth towel in a warm solution of the tea and apply over the eyes for half an hour. Used catnip tea bags, while still warm and rung out, can also be put on the eyes for some relief.”

Note that catnip can also be taken as a smoked herb, rolled in rolling papers and smoked like a cigarette, for its relaxing qualities; however its ability to be habit forming should be remembered, so as with any internal use of this herb, it should be reserved for occasional usage only.

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