The valepotriates in Valerian are chemically similar to trans-nepatolactrone in Nepeta (catnip). This question got my mind engaged enough to search around a bit, and looked at the two formidable plant chemical databases, but couldn’t find a lucid explaination as to why both these herbs have such a pronounced feliphile effect.(Yep, that is a real term!)
I’ve e-mailed some folks with herbal expertise, and will share any answers.
In the meantime, Tech, here is a bunch of information on http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/v/valeri01.html This is from an herbal published in the 1930’s, but it’s still valid, and shows how herbal information has always been an ongoing science.
This interesting bit of folklore is from that entry:
“Valerian has an effect on the nervous system of many animals, especially cats, which seem to be thrown into a kind of intoxication by its scent. It is scarcely possible to keep a plant of Valerian in a garden after the leaves or root have been bruised or disturbed in any way, for cats are at once attracted and roll on the unfortunate plant. It is equally attractive to rats and is often used by rat-catchers to bait their traps. It has been suggested that the famous Pied Piper of Hamelin owed his irresistible power over rats to the fact that he secreted Valerian roots about his person.”
I’d suspect that the reason catnip is preferred over valerian as a cat hi-dee-ho is because of your previously mentioned fact that it has a absolutely horrible smell. Not great for the marketplace.
You can also use catnip as a relaxing tea. Most of the stuff sold as pet jollies is pretty worn out. Use your nose, and only buy the herb if it is noticeably fragrant. Since the desired compounds are also volatile oils, cover the brewing cup when steeping, so there’s no evaporation.
Hope this helps; more info as I get it.