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Not frenzied enough? Try this

Catnip gives your cat a healthful high. But growing your own takes patience.

June 03, 2004|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

Catnip and its kin are lovely plants. They tolerate heat and resist drought, though regular water fattens up the oil-rich leaves and stems. Bees and other beneficial insects enjoy their colorful blossoms.

And to Bella, my cat, they're like legal drugs with no ill effects. She enjoys dried catnip from the store, but even more, she likes her herb fresh and fragrant, straight off the plant. With every whiff, she wriggles like a fish out of water, but she's having a lot more fun -- as are any humans who get to watch.

Catnip is not toxic but it sure is powerful. The well-documented "catnip response" consists of four distinct behaviors, almost always in sequence:

* Sniffing

* Licking and chewing with head shaking

* Chin and cheek rubbing

* Backward roll and body rubbing.

Digging, pawing, scratching, salivating and grooming are also typical. The response lasts no more than 15 minutes, vets and other experts say, with a one-hour rest period.

Sounds right. Miss Bella indulges intermittently around the clock, in between siestas.

So having spent a fortune on store-bought dried leaf, stem and bud, it seemed natural to try to grow our own. Knowing that true catnip, Nepeta cataria, was almost too easy (read, a bit of a weed), I developed a plan. There are basically three cat-attractors in the mint family -- catnip, catmints and cat thyme. I would plant all three to see which my little nip-head liked best.

I started with one of the hybrid catmints, like those in our neighbor Jackie's garden. Her cat Bugsy sleeps in two of three gray-green mounds, but he doesn't "respond." My Bella, however, goes through all four motions when presented with a sprig, stripping off, mashing and devouring the leaves and lavender-pink blossoms. I bought a chubby, 4-inch pot of the common Nepeta X, available at most nursuries. But before I could get it in the ground, Bella had reduced it to stubs.

Word got out, and her next objects of affection were gifts: a bright green catnip from Jackie and a downier catmint from Katarina Eriksson, head gardener of the Herb Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Both were appreciated,then rapidly decimated.

Hoping there might be strength in numbers, I bought three low-growing N. racemosa 'Little Titches.' Perhaps Bella would graze lightly from plant to plant, giving each the ability to recover. Wrong. As I waffled about where to put them, she decapitated them one by one.

Amused and determined, I visited Shirley Kerins, landscape architect and designer of the Huntington's Herb Garden. I accepted a new catnip; a hybrid catmint 'Six Hills Giant'; and one cat thyme, Teucrium marum, an exquisite thing with magenta flowers and tiny but pungent leaves the color of sea foam. "Like a cross between rosemary and thyme," Kerins said.

Bella thought all three were swell. Two cats from up the block came calling. The hapless plants grew flatter, barer and hairier.

It is now late spring. There are no mounds of catnip or catmint flowering in the garden. No airy drifts of cat thyme. Bella seems sated by her catnip-infused mice and corrugated-cardboard scratcher, her fleece-lined "Catnip Lounger" with the pocket full of hidden herb, and the occasional catnip-coated treat. Catnip farmers and the pet industry must be thriving.

Even so, I'm having a ball, still trying to grow a few plants and learning plenty.

For the how and why, Kerins directed me to Art Tucker, research professor at Delaware State University, herb expert, gardener and coauthor (with his wife, Sharon S. Tucker) of the scientific paper "Catnip and the Catnip Response." He faxed a copy.

It was everything I wanted to know and more, with descriptions of 14 chemical compounds from diverse biological sources, each able to bend the feline mind. Nepetalactones give catnip and the other nepetas their kick. Cat thyme, common valerian, ornamental kiwi vines, yellow bells from the Southwest, baby blue eyes from California, dittany of Crete (an ornamental oregano) and other plants -- and even certain ants and beetles -- are laced with similar substances.

I learned that gender doesn't matter, and one-third of all cats don't respond (it's genetic). Reproductive-age adults are more responsive and kittens under three months rarely indulge.

According to the Tuckers, the chemicals may act as hallucinogens or merely cross-react with "naturally occurring odors" in a cat's world. Although the function of the response remains enigmatic, it does not result in an increase in killing, fighting or sexual behavior but does -- when cats are given the choice -- produce "an increased attention to stuffed objects and a decreased attention to rats."

The researchers say the biological "raison d'etre" of nepetalactone in catnip is understood: It repels insects that might feast on the plant. It's no surprise then that organic gardeners pair catnip with vegetables to discourage aphids and flea beetles.

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