Q: I’ve heard people talk about catnip and catmint. Is there a difference between them or are the names one and the same?

A: Yes, there is a difference, and the names are sometimes used interchangeably. While both are members of the Nepeta or mint family, they are actually two separate plants.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria), is leggier in appearance and produces white flowers. This is the plant that contains nepetalactone, the compound that may make the cat more playful or rambunctious. It is also a natural insect repellent and will bloom midsummer and again in the fall. If you purchase toys, edible arrowhead shaped leafed plants, and scratching posts, they most likely contain catnip rather than catmint.

Catmint (Nepeta mussinii) has denser foliage with violet flowers and is often used as an herb as one would use the more traditional mint leaves. Catmint produces more continuous blooms than its catnip cousin with flowers from May to September and will tolerate part-shade locations. Some cats are attracted to catmint, but its effects on them are much milder than with catnip. If you are concerned about the rampant spreading mint is notorious for, consider growing the sterile hybrid Faasen’s catmint (Nepeta x faassenii).

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Both plants can be grown as perennials and attract a wide variety of pollinators. Deadheading (removing) spent flowers will prolong blooming. Catnip is hardy in zones 3-9 and prefers a sunny location. Catmint will grow in zones 4-8, which means it’s hardy through most of Minnesota, including the Duluth area, but won’t do well in the far north. Either plant can be grown in a windowsill herb garden but will produce finer and smaller stems and leaves.

If you are planting for the enjoyment of your favorite feline companion, catnip is the choice for you. If you want lush foliage and prolonged blooms that the bees and butterflies enjoy, catmint is your best option.

More information may be found at: extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-news/catmints-and-catnip-which-purrfect-your-garden.

Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County. Send questions to features@duluthnews.com.