[Herbalist] catnip vs catmint (is catmint dangerous)

Kathleen Keeler kkeeler at unlserve.unl.edu
Tue Apr 3 11:06:07 PDT 2007

> For SCA-period purposes, catnip and cat-mint, nep, or catnep appear to
>be slightly different. The plant referred to as nep appears to be what 
>we call Calamint, lesser calamint, or Calamintha nepeta
>Catnip (Nepeta Cataria) is traditionally considered a uterine stimulant, 
>which may be where the issue comes in; or it may be that Calamint is not 
>classified by the USDA as "Generally Recognized as Safe" (which means it 
>has a history of being used in this country and no major side effects 
indicating italics with _  _ , which means it's a foreign, in this case, 
Latin, word.  Yahoo will probably wipe out my italicization.

Both Culpeper ( Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1652 see online 
http://www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/frameset.html same at 
http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/culpeper/culpeper.htm ) and 
Gerard (The Herbal or General History of Plants, unabridged, 1633) 
clearly distinguish calamint, also called mountain mint, from catmint, 
also called nep.  I don't find the name catnip at all. Gerard recognizes 
several catmints:  (no descriptor, small and great) and four calamints 
(one with no descriptor other than mountain mint as a synonym, a second 
calamint called mountain mint which he calls the most excellent, common 
calamint and field calamint).  Gerard discusses Dioscorides's plants 
unders calamint, thinks one of the calamints is the "true _Nepeta_ of 
the Ancients" but uses "nep" to refer to catnip and comments that "nep 
has all the virtues of the calamints".

Tony Hunt, in Plant names of Medieval England, 1989, says calamint, 
_Calamintha_ species, was Calamentum Maius, or gallice calamente, or 
calament, calamynte,  wyld calamynt, anglice calamynte, and anglice 
nepte vel calamynte
while catmint, catnip, _Nepeta cataria_ was Calamentum Minus, gallice 
nepte, anglice cateminte nepte, kattismete (or kattismente), gallice 
nepte, anglice cattesmynte, cattesmynte, cattismynt

The more I looked, the more I think it's calamint in the old herbals, 
not catnip, and that nep(eta) was originally calamint and is now 
catnip.  Jadwiga, where do you find nep documented as calamint in 
Period? See entries in Culpeper and Gerard, above.

Earlier herbals:
The recent translation of Hildegarde von Bingen's Physica lists 
_nebetta_ which the translator called catnip.

I have a copy of Macer, 1200, translated from the Latin, which gives 
catnip, _Nepeta cataria_, and begins "catnip is called _calamentum_ in 
greek..."  I wonder if the translator got it wrong.

In Dioscorides (The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, 1933 edition, 
translation from 1655) there's a section for Kalaminthe, (subtitled 
Mentha Sylvestris by someone later), He describes three kinds of 
Calaminthe, one mountanious, one like Pulegium (pennyroyal) but 
stronger, called Nepeta by the Romans and a third from fields.  The uses 
appear to apply to all.

Dioscorides' only other entry that could be catnip/catmint/calamint is 
probably _Glecoma_, ground ivy, but is a very brief entry.

I have a middle period facsimilie [Medicina Antiqua]  in Latin where I 
find _herba nipeta_, but the picture is a generic mint and my Latin not 
good enough to get any insight.
I don't spot either catnip or catmint in the _Tacunium sanitatis_

Pollington's reprint of Anglo Saxon herbals describes catnip, nepeta, 
from the AS herbals and makes no mention of calamint. 

All the modern translations hang on the idea that nepeta = catnip in 
Latin or classical Medieval usages and I'm suddenly doubtful.  As noted, 
Gerard says that one of the calamints is the "_Nepeta_ of the Ancients" 
  I could write that off as Gerard's error.  But calamint seems to be a 
major herb and catnip is a minor one these days and calamint a major 
one.  Is that valid, you-all?  If true, then to say the old entries are 
catnip not calamint means they used catnip more than calamint, and we 
now use calamint more, medicinally.  Mixing up the plant names seems a 
more likely error than a switch in plant efficacy.  But I see several 
problems with my argument.

The important, lesser calamint, the only one in the PDR for Herbal 
Medicine, is _Calaminthus nepeta_.  I tried to run down why it's species 
name is nepeta, hoping to find someone saying "based on the Roman name 
for it" but could not find anything helpful.  My English flora says it's 
very hard to tell from catmint (catnip):  only flower characters are 

PDR for Herbal Medicine doesn't raise any particular flags for either, 
used in usual dosages (I have the 2nd ed, from 2000), but my focus is 
the plants, not their uses.

I know this is more than anyone wanted and _I_ didn't mean to spend so 
much time on it.  In summary: end-of-Period English herbals distinguish 
cat mint or nep from calamint.  Earlier herbals in translation see "nep" 
and say it's catnip.  That may not be valid.  Catnips and calamints 
clearly have similar medicinal properties (according to Gerard) and 
similar physical characteristics.

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