Lemon Balm vs Catnip? Differences and is It Safe for Cats?
Catnip and lemon balm are underutilized herbs that at a first glance might look similar. However, despite resembling each other, lemon balm and catnip are used for quite different purposes.
Catnip and lemon balm have different leaf colors, shapes, and taste. Lemon balm has a strong lemony taste while catnip lacks it. Catnip presents darker leaves and thrives in drier soil conditions than lemon balm. Catnip smell has a clear effect on cats while lemon balm does not.
Despite such differences, it is not uncommon among gardeners to confuse them. So let’s dive in for more.
The 4 Differences Between Catnip and Lemon Balm
The main difference among them can be reconducted in appearance, taste, food pairing, and nutritional content.
Catnip and lemon balm resemble each other in some ways. Both plants produce square stems and triangular leaves. However, the height and color may vary.
Catnip (scientifically called Nepeta cataria) produces thick branched stems. Catnip typically reaches up to three feet tall (source) and may spread horizontally about two feet. The triangular leaves grow in opposite pairs and feature large teeth. The leaves and stems are often grayish-green. The leaves are up to three inches long and covered in fine hairs. Small pink or white flowers appear in the spring. The flowers are short-lived and produce a light, pleasant fragrance.
Lemon balm (scientifically called Melissa officinalis) grows to about two feet tall (shorter) and two feet wide, making it a little shorter compared to catnip. While catnip is typically grayish-green, lemon balm produces bright green foliage, especially when grown in full sun. The leaves are also triangular with large teeth but are not covered in fine hairs. Small white flowers may appear in the summer. This plant is native to Europe but is quite widespread in North America as well.
You might be wondering, are catnip and lemon balm that different? Here’s the deal
Lemon balm has a strong lemony scent and citrusy taste. This is mainly due to the presence of citral and citronellal as discussed in this study, as well as other minor well-known chemicals such as linalool and geraniol.
Catnip tastes similar to mint, despite being a bit weaker.
Catnip and lemon balm contains very little nutrition values as they are mostly used for their flavors or active chemical compounds.
Due to the lack of available data, the table below, reports the nutritional content for 100g of fresh lemon balm vs 100g of dry catnip. Do not be fooled though. As highlighted in the article discussing the differences between fresh and dried herbs, dried herbs have a way higher nutritional content than their fresh counterpart. Why? Well, around 70% of the weight of a leaf is water.
Lemon Balm (fresh 100g)
Catnip (dry 100g)
Lemon balm is relatively high in vitamin B9 (30ug per 100g) providing around 10% of your daily intake. Even though 100g might sound a lot, as a rough rule of thumb, this equates to around 30g of dry leaves.
Here is the most significant difference. Lemon balm, despite not being as commonly used as basil or rosemary finds quite a few interesting applications for culinary application. On the other hand, catnip can be eaten by humans, despite being quite uncommon.
Regarding lemon balm, one of the most common uses of lemon balm is for tea. You can either dry the leaves beforehand for a stronger flavor or just drop them in boiling water (after a quick wash). Differently from the video below, I will not pinch off leaves but rather cut the stem just above a pair of leaves. This will promote massive growth of your lemon balm.
However, lemon balm can also be used for curry, stir fry, fresh summer salads (it is a great match with cucumber and tomato).
My favorite recipes using lemon balm? Ice cream as the recipe below where I replace mint with lemon balm (result guaranteed). Another great pick is pesto. I used this basil pesto recipe where I use lemon balm rather than basil. Here to note, you can wash lemon balm (especially if you are not growing indoors). It does not lose its flavor as quickly as basil.
Catnip, on the other hand, finds mainly its use for cat tea (for the entertainment of their owners watching their friends’ hilarious reactions) or soups. A few gardeners also use it in salads but again, it is quite uncommon.
Can Catnip and Lemon Balm Grow Together?
Catnip and lemon balm plants grow together easily as both plants thrive in full sun and tolerate partial sun. They also grow in a variety of soil types with abundant watering and require very little care once established.
The main consideration when growing catnip and lemon balm together is the size of the container. Both plants can grow over two feet tall and spread close to two feet. Give the two plants space (I would recommend 4 feet from each other) to keep the foliage from becoming intertwined. This is not a problem if you are planning to prune them regularly.
Both herbs tolerate a range of soil types but grow best in loamy soil with good drainage. Adding perlite, sand, or vermiculite may improve drainage but limit water retention slightly. If the soil drains slowly, try amending the soil with mulch or compost.
Catnip and lemon balm achieve optimal outdoor growth in full sun. These herbs grow in partial shade but may not produce full, healthy stems and leaves.
The water requirements for lemon balm and catnip are also similar. Water thoroughly and then allow the top several inches to dry before watering again. During hot or dry weather, these herbs may need water daily.
Is Lemon Balm Safe for Cats?
Lemon balm is safe for cats and has not shown any negative effect on such animals if ingested if not temporary sleepiness. However, normally cats are repelled by this herb due to its lemony smell, making it a great idea in border to avoid cats digging or disturbing any plant bed.
Catnip Effects on Cats
Catnip is widely known to cause hyperactivity, trigger pleasurable behavior in around half of the cat population. In the meantime, the animal will temporarily lose part of its balance and coordination. Such effects last around 10 minutes and affect around half of the cat’s population.
This is because the plant contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone. After smelling catnip, a cat may become hyperactive, rolling, and flipping all over the place. When a cat ingests the plant, it will have a sedative effect. Your cat may become sleepy.
So does lemon balm produce the same results? Lemon balm has a citrus aroma. As discussed in many sources, this strongly deters cats rather than attracts them as catnip does. In case your cat eats lemon balm, it can cause sleepiness and it is not toxic to pets.
While catnip and lemon balm plants are safe for cats to consume, you should only give them small amounts to prevent digestive distress.
Propagating From Cuttings: Catnip or Lemon Balm?
Both catnip and lemon balm can be propagated from cuttings. This is something that I encourage as a gardener. Indeed, growing from seeds, although rewarding, it takes lots of patience and, for herbs such as lemon balm and catnip, a cutting will be fine.
Propagate from cuttings in the spring or summer as cuttings that are taken later in the year may not take root before winter. Use the same propagation steps for either herb. Select a healthy stem with several pairs of leaves or leaf nodes. Avoid stems with flowers as the flowers take energy from producing new roots.
Use sharp, sterile gardening shears and cut the stems just below a node. Place the cut stems in a glass of water. Replace the water each day while waiting for new roots to appear.
When the roots are about one to two inches long, transplant the cuttings to their permanent homes in containers or in the garden. Check this 3-step propagation by cutting the article for more details.
How Long Do They Last: Perennial or Annual?
Catnip and lemon balm are hardy perennials recommended for USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9. The plants die back to the ground each year when the cold temperatures arrive. In the spring, the herbs produce new growth.
As for all herbs, they can both be successfully grown indoors. However, if you do not have at least 4 hours of sunlight (does not need to be direct) your plant might suffer. They will still survive (as they can grow in shade) but their growth will be stunted and slow.
Fertilizer also helps promote healthier growth. Use a liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength with water. Apply the fertilizer once per month during the spring and summer.
- Both lemon balm and catnip are part of the mint family but lemon balm has a brighter green appearance.
- Lemon balm is way more used in culinary applications due to its citrusy flavor and lemony aroma while catnip has a more bland mint taste.
- Lemon balm and catnip can happily grow together indoors. Remember to provide light (even artificial if needed) if at least 4 of good sunlight (no cloudy) is provided per day.
Does catnip smell like lemon? The most common catnip variety does not smell like lemon. However, one variety (simply called lemon catnip), presents a gentle lemony aroma
Does catnip come back every year? Yes, catnip is a vigorous plant that stops growing in the cold season (if kept outside with a temperature below 41F) but that can grow back in spring.
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