|By William Scheick
Although cats could not care less, there is more to catmints than catnip. Many gardeners, on the other hand, care plenty about these other catmints (nepetas), which (like our feline pals) come in many alluring variations. There are about 250 species of European and Asian catmints, with only about 20 or so available commercially.
CATNIP PLUS, MINUS
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a three-foot herb that aggressively reseeds itself — one reason for its limited appeal to many gardeners. Some gardeners also find catnip’s smell annoying, though possibly its pungent odor once gave this short-lived perennial credibility as a medicinal tea. Even deer ignore catnip as just one more aromatic mint they are not inclined to nibble.
Most (not all) cats, however, find the smell of catnip to be irresistible — for a short while, at least. When they are susceptible, big jungle cats as well as small domestic felines are equally enticed by catmint. They will rub their heads on this harmless and non-addictive plant, roll all over it, bite off chunks and even vocalize their delight in it.
Such antics disturb hair-like filaments (trichomes) covering catmint leaves and stems. When these filaments are brushed or broken, the volatile oils filling them vaporize into the air. Sexually mature cats are particularly attracted to the release of nepetalactone, a chemical mimicking a feline pheromone that prompts cat brains to respond “affectionately.”
That attraction means flattened plants, of course. Even so, strategically positioned catnip offers one way to distract cats from other parts of the garden — your rose circle, perhaps — where their digging would be unwelcome. Nearby disturbed catmint might serve another purpose, too. When released, catmint’s nepetalactone has been shown to repel mosquitoes even better than DEET. Unfortunately nepetalactone is not effective when applied to skin — not that you would want it on your skin when surrounded by cat buddies.
UNFUSSY CATMINT HYBRID
Actually, catnip is not the only nepeta that performs as a feline aphrodisiac. This effect is also elicited by Faassen’s catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), a reliable and popular Dutch hybrid (N. racemosa x N. nepetella). Sometimes marketed as N. mussinii, it shows up routinely at local garden centers as if it were just waiting to be adopted and taken home.
Planted along edges or among rocks, this 18-incher can contribute color and texture in spring and sometimes again in autumn. In ideal settings, it will bloom from spring though autumn, while providing nourishment for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Since this filler or ground-cover hybrid is sterile, it has lost the nuisance capacity for invasiveness typical of its parents and many other members of the mint family.
This easy-to-grow perennial is purrfect for all of our state, where it is often treated as an annual. In fact, Faassen’s catmint is such a dependable performer that it has frequently been a source for new ornamental catmint cultivars. These lovely Xeric cultivars include 18-inch purplish blue-petaled ‘Cat’s Meow’ and two-foot lavender-bloomed ‘Dropmore.’ ‘Select Blue’ is a Xeric, lavender-flowered Faassen’s cultivar with an excellent record particularly in the High Plains region (including Amarillo and Lubbock).
‘Felix’ is a N. x faassenii introduction from England with grey-green foliage and intense lilac-blue blossoms. It is much better behaved than Felix the mischievous cartoon cat. Besides being notably heat-tolerant, this compact ‘Felix’ doesn’t sprawl. Neither does lavender-flowered ‘Junior Walker,’ a drought-resistant, sterile dwarf that will ornamentally cascade over a garden edge.
Other fragrant European nepetas have become popular, too. ‘Walker’s Low,’ a two-foot Turkish catmint (N. racemosa) with periwinkle-blue blooms, was designated as the 2007 Perennial Plant of the Year (by the Perennial Plant Association) and received a rare five-star rating during catmint trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden. ‘Walker’s Low’ has a documented history of thriving as a Xeric perennial in North-Central Texas, where (during supportive climatic conditions) it will bloom continuously from spring through autumn.
Other N. racemosa selections include one-foot white ‘Snowflake,’ 18-inch lavenderish ‘Blue Wonder’ and two-foot lilac-hued ‘Superba.’ There are also related floriferous miniatures, such as 10-inch purple-blue ‘Little Titch’ and lavender-white ‘Blue Ice,’ with blooms that can brighten a dappled garden border or a deck planter.
Majestic drifts of three-foot spears of lavender flowers and gray-green leaves make an impressive case for low-care ‘Six Hills Giant,’ which also received five stars during the Chicago Botanic Garden trials and is listed as a top performer by the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Much taller is violet-blue ‘Wild Cat,’ a Caucasus catmint (N. grandiflora) suitable for northern parts of Texas. ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron,’ a Siberian catmint (N. sibirica), potentially offers an unusually long cycle of blue flowers.
Scentless cultivars of N. nervosa, from India, exhibit upright, bushy versions of catmints. ‘Blue Moon’ produces 2-foot spikes, whereas small-leafed ‘Blue Carpet’ attains about a foot in height and attractively fans its blooms along its sides. Unusual color highlights ‘Pink Cat,’ a neatly mounding compact cultivar of N. nervosa
These nervosa cultivars tend to be finicky “cats” preferring cooler conditions than typical even of northern Texas. So perhaps most of us might think of them as annuals for our containers. That they often mature and bloom early is one advantage of these catmints. Their disadvantages include proneness to crown rot, failure to rebloom and short lifespan.
‘Pink Dreams’ is a cultivar of N. subsessilis, a Japanese catmint which requires slightly acidic soil and bright shade in Texas. ‘Pink Dreams,’ like ‘Blue Dreams,’ produces larger than average flowers on short stems during its first year and then eventually grows to about 2 feet. Spent blooms cling to this plant, requiring deadheading to maintain appearance. The roots of these and other N. subsessilis cultivars need to be kept cool and moist (not soggy), which in Texas makes them a bigger challenge than the catmint varieties of N. x faassenii and N. racemosa
For nepeta connoisseurs, there is Himalayan catmint (N. clarkei) from Pakistan and Teide catmint (N. teydea) from the Canary Islands. Both perform well in rocky and sandy soils. In Texas they are best grown in containers, where they can be protected from winter wetness and summer humidity.
CARING FOR CATMINTS
While all of these catmints are sufficiently cold hardy for Texas, they are generally less suited for our heat zones. This means that they readily survive our winters, but usually need assistance during our summers. In fact, although catmints can be grown throughout our state, they tend to thrive better in the northern half, where some can actually perform as perennials.
It is helpful to keep in mind that catmints are shallow-rooted. So in the Lone Star state they perform best with watering (as needed) in (average) draining soils located in dappled light or half-day bright shade. Watering should be done with care because catmint crowns rot when exposed too long to too much moisture, which is why excellent drainage is a must.
Even so, catmints are easy-care plants. Depending on the cultivar and the amount of shade, some might require support-staking to maximize floral showiness. Feeding them can be counter-productive.
Catmints do not require deadheading (except for looks with N. subsessilis). Still, cutting them back by about half their height after the first bloom period will better the odds for reblooming in autumn. Pruning also reduces the need for staking catmints that tend to flop after blooming. Unfortunately, in our regions with intense heat and draught, both blooming periods may be shorter than normal for catmints. So some inexpensive experimentation is necessary to identify which cultivars will flourish in your yard.
In my experience, the availability of catmint cultivars can sometimes seem to mimic the behavior of cats — they can be suddenly present one moment, then, just as suddenly, out of sight the next moment. I have photos of catmint cultivars that seem to be no longer purchasable. So some catmint cultivars hang around for a long time, while others disappear altogether, at least commercially. That can be frustrating to devoted catmint collectors.