Houseplants for cats

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

How does your cat like your houseplants? I don’t mean how they look; I mean for nibbling, a bad habit of some cats. Bad for them and bad for you, because eating certain houseplants could sicken a cat or worse, and at the very least, leave the houseplant ragged.

One way to woo a feline away from houseplants would be to provide a better alternative. Now what could that be? Duh! Catnip, Nepeta cataria: a member of the mint family – admittedly not the prettiest of houseplants, but hey, you’re growing this for your cat, not yourself. (Other Nepeta species, such as N. x faassenii and N. racemes, are less enticing to cats, even if they are more attractive to us.)

Catnip is very easy to grow outdoors, and can be grown indoors through winter. The main ingredient that could be lacking in winter is light; six or more hours of sunlight beaming down on the plant through a window would be ideal. Other than that, needs are the same as most other plants: regular potting soil coupled with a watering regime that keeps said soil neither sodden nor bone-dry, just moist.


Catnip plants are not hard to find. Growing from seed is easy, except the plants won’t be cat-ready for weeks and weeks.

Established plants are quick and easy to multiply, so if you’ve got a friend with a potted plant – preferably overgrown, so that you both benefit – you can make new plants by slicing the rootball into two or more new sections, along with their aboveground stems, and then repotting each of them. Or clip off stems each a few inches long, strip leaves from their bottom portions and poke them into moist potting soil to root. Help these shocked plants or plant parts recover by keeping them in bright-but-indirect light for a couple of weeks (and protected from any cats).

That brings me to perhaps the worst potential pest of your new catnip plant: cats! They’ll roll in it, releasing the strong aroma that drives them crazy, and nibble it to experience its narcotic effect. Outdoor plants tolerate such rambunctious playing; indoor plants, with less-than-perfect growing conditions, are more frail. You might want to limit playtimes to weekly visits.

Limiting playtimes might also keep the plant more enticing. Cats can habituate to catnip. And even then, only about 50 percent of cats fall under the spell of catnip – none of them as kittens.

No reason to limit your cat’s botanical garden to catnip. Cats also like to nibble on grasses, which can be very pretty houseplants and lack the not-very-popular (to most humans) aroma of catnip.

It’s not clear why cats, which are carnivores, like that nibble; perhaps, some say, to induce vomiting to get rid of undigested animal parts. Perhaps, others say, for vitamins and minerals.

“Grasses” is a term I use quite liberally, to mean not necessarily lawngrass, but any plant in the grass family. Most convenient is just to mosey over to the local health-food store and purchase some whole grain such as wheat (sold as “wheat berries”) or rye. Soak a batch of these seeds in water for a few hours and then sow them in potting soil in a decorative container. Depending on the temperature, green sprouts should soon appear against the dark backdrop of soil. Grasses grow quickly, given light, warmth and sufficient-but-not-too-much water.

The aforementioned grasses are annuals, and at some point in their growth, what with cat nibbling and aging, will start looking ragged. Have another pot ready with already-sprouting grass. And so on.

The grass serves well for us humans as well as our cats to enjoy. They’re very springlike in their appearance, even if confined to only a small pot: a microcosm of what’s to come.