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Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Sources - Paracelsus
Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), who gave himself the single name, Paracelsus, meaning equal to Celsus a first century Roman revered for the extent of his knowledge, was a Swiss. Depending on the view of his work taken, he is described as a philosopher, aesthete and nutter. It might be argued that the word ‘bombast’ meaning ‘pompous speech or writing’ derives from his name rather than the Latin for ‘padding’.
He is credited with the discovery of hydrogen but, in the plant world, Paracelsus is mostly remembered for two things. He was the first person to say that, in effect, there is no such thing as an absolute poison. The human race is arrogant and had, before Paracelsus, sought to answer the question ‘Why is that plant trying to kill me?’ because the assumption was that everything on earth had a relation to mankind.
Paracelsus said that the plant simply contained a chemical which was essential to its life cycle and if that chemical produced a reaction with a chemical which was essential to some creature’s life cycle then poisoning occurred. If a creature did not respond to that chemical it would not be poisoned. This explains why birds can eat some things which, to us, are deadly poisons.
Paracelsus also brought into focus the idea that the look of a plant indicated how it should be used. This was not new; Pliny talks about the look of gromwell showing it should be used to treat stones. But, Paracelsus brought the idea into a more structured consideration which led, ultimately, to William Coles, in his 1656 book ‘The Art of Simpling’ coining the term ‘the Doctrine of Signatures’.
The amusing effect of this plant on cats leads to a fundamental understanding of the nature of poisons.
Read more about Nepeta faassenii, catmint, in these blog entries;
Huffington Post compiles a collection of videos of cats getting high
The effect on cats and humans of eating catmint
Meaning of the Name
Most sources give a simple circular definition but since ‘catnip’ is said to come from ‘cat’ plus ‘nepeta’ such definitions are unhelpful. It has been suggested that the plant originally came from Nepet(e) in the Lazio region of Italy. It has also been suggested that the name derives from 'nepa', scorpion, because the plant was alleged to cure the sting.
Named for J H Faassen, a Dutch nurseryman who developed the first Nepeta hybrids.
Common Names and Synonyms
catmint, catnip, cannabis for cats
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
A volatile oil, nepetalactone, is present but its exact nature is undefined. It is thought to be an abortificant.
The effect of catmint on humans is of a lot less interest than its action on cats where it seems to be a stimulant leading to its being called 'cannabis for cats'.
It is said to make humans quarrelsome if ingested.
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
No human incidents but many tales of its effect on cats. 'Digger' the Alnwick Garden cat would spend most summer afternoons sleeping under a wormwood bush after thrashing around in the catmint. Her apparently lifeless form lying undisturbed by the proximity of large groups of visitors led some people to ask 'Is That Cat Dead?'
The BBC's 'Weird Nature' series included footage of the behaviour of cats around nepeta.
Folklore and Facts
An interesting example of the idea, first put forward by Paracelsus, that there is no such thing as a universal poison and that different creatures will respond in different ways to the substances in plants.
Its ability to make humans aggressive is reported to have been used by the hangman who would consume some on a working day to put himself in the right mood to perform his duties. The idea of a happy go lucky family man turning into a killer after eating some green leaves sounds like a perversion of Popeye's use of spinach to save the damsel in distress.