Honeyed Spice of the Canyons
Botanical Name: (Monarda fistulosa var. menthaefolia and allied species)
Common Names: Wild Bergamot, Monarda, Beebalm, Wild Oregano, Oregano de la Sierra
Taste/Impression: Diffusive, aromatic, spicy
Energetics: warm/cool, diffusively stimulating/relaxant
Primary Actions: Diffusive stimulant, relaxant nervine, anti-spasmodic, diaphoretic, carminative, emmenagogue
The Bee’s Balm
The bees are in a glorious mood just now, buzzing and hovering above the spicy-sweet Beebalm flowers. Every year I wait for just this moment, for the rains that come sweeping in from the south, the new green growth that erupts everywhere and for the magnificent blooms of one of my favorite flowers. Not only is this blossom ungodly gorgeous, but it's one of the most versatile and effective medicines I've ever used. Beebalm is a common Gila plant, preferring to grow in pine-inhabited arroyos. It's hardy and thrives through both floods and droughts, making it one of my most dependable primary medicines.
Although this plant has a huge variety of uses, one area it really stands out is yeast infections. I have never used any herb (or even any pharmaceutical) that works so consistently. Especially if caught in the early stages, Beebalm will keep the infection from ever getting off the ground. I've confirmed these primary uses for the plant over and over again, especially for many kinds of systemic infection and specifically for the mucus membranes. I have used the tincture of the fresh flowers on literally dozens of clients now, for issues ranging from sinus infections, UTIs, yeast infections, cellulitis, gut infections, toothaches, the beginning stages of blood poisoning, ear infections and related afflictions with great results. In fact, Beebalm has never yet failed me in the treatment of acute infections, either externally or internally. Proper usage requires persistent, frequent doses and careful observation of the client’s status. Its action can sometimes be enhanced by combining it with other herbs like Alder (for acute, hot infections and lymphatic involvement), Oregon Grape Root (for chronic or acute infections with signs of heat and weakness), or Artemisia (specifically for food poisoning or gut infections).
Beebalm is great used as a steam for congested sinuses or lungs, and makes a wonderful foot wash for tired feet or poor circulation. It’s also useful for nausea, delayed menstruation, general stomach upset, insufficient circulation, headache, depression, anxiety and as a relaxant diaphoretic. While this may seem a rather random list of uses, there is an underlying pattern in its behavior. As with many diaphoretics, the plant moves from the inside out, increasing peripheral circulation, enhancing immunity at the body’s surface and invigorating any cold, understimulated tissues.
You’ll note that many of the mint family plants perform similar functions in the body, but each have their own unique specialties and affinities. Rosemary works at the body’s core with an emphasis on the heart, while Sage operates closer to the surface with a proclivity for the nervous system. Peppermint, with its intense, antispasmodic volatile oils works wonderfully for many belly troubles while Lavender moves in a gentler, slower and in a more head and heart focused manner. Any of these plants may be used somewhat interchangeably but we get the most from each when keep in mind their specific energetics, tendencies and way of moving in the body. In my mind, Beebalm’s special talents lie in its infection resolving abilities as well as its mood lifting and somewhat euphoric effect upon the senses. It also has the benefit of having both stimulating and relaxing, warming and cooling attributes. It can create a distinct feeling of heat in the body, but also significantly cools inflammation of any kind.
Also, Beebalm tincture on burns is nothing short of great, it will kick your Lavender EOs butt every time, and is even better with a bit of Evening Primrose tincture. The salve is fabulous, I mix it up with Mugwort and Alder usually for a strange smelling but super super effective wound healer.
The honey made with the flowers is heavenly, and I don't say that lightly. It tastes like spicy hot sweetness gone buzzy on your tongue. Pure pleasure, and a a tasty and effective treatment for sore throats, and for anything else you might use Beebalm for. It’s also an especially amazing dressing for wounds and burns, and I’ve seen it result in some remarkably rapid healing.
I have observed that the stronger and spicier the taste, the stronger the diaphoretic and anti-infective qualities of the medicine. Having sampled Monarda species in medicine from all over the country, I have discovered that I only need to use half the amount of our local Beebalm as compared to M. didyma from New England, and about a third of what I would use of the M. fistulosa from the Midwest. Each of these species and localities seem to promote their own strengths and differences, giving them an endless range of subtlety and application. When using your own variety, keep this in mind and mindfully taste and experiment with it rather than just going with dosages or amounts indicated by books or other sources.
A Southwestern Spice - Oregano de la Sierra
Many of us tend to think of common kitchen spices as those from exotic locations --cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg or even black pepper -- but there’s no shortage of wonderful North American spices like Juniper, Sage and Beebalm. While Beebalm is no longer a popular herb in most parts of the country, it certainly deserves more attention for both its flavoring and healing properties. I love its folk history as a medicine, spice and tea used by nearly every group of people who’ve made their home in rural America, from indigenous tribes to European immigrants and everyone in between. Quintessential of American folk medicine, this humble, yet powerful wildflower provides a colorful emblem for traditional herbalists.
One possible contributing factor to Beebalm’s current lack of spice-centric popularity may be how much the flavor tends to differ with the subspecies and locality, making it hard to generalize amounts in food or medicine. From the lemon scented variations of the prairie to the sweet flowers of New England to the hot and spicy bite of my own local variety, Beebalm has an incredible range of subtlety and heat. Here in New Mexico, locals refer to one of our native species (Monarda fistulosa var. menthaefolia) as Oregano de la Sierra, or Oregano of the Mountain. And although there are at least two other available species of Monarda here, it is this spicy Oregano variation that seems to have been most commonly used in food and medicine by the natives, Hispanics and Anglos in this area. And it is indeed an Oregano of the mountains, growing primarily above 8,000 feet in rocky, wet soil, although it can be found in moist canyons such as ours as low as 6,000 feet.
Beebalm is commonly used in all sorts of foods in the Southwest, in spaghetti, salsa, venison stew, burritos, beans and even pizza – essentially anywhere you might want an Oregano like taste. A number of traditional Hopi and Navajo dishes call specifically for Beebalm, and many indigenous cooksthat I’ve met still consider the “official” Oregano of commerce a poor substitute for the real wild grown article. Our variety is quite hot and spicy, especially the flowers, and a little goes a long way. With such strong volatile oils, the plant tends to last quite a long time when dried, retaining its unique flavor and potency for up to five years. I don’t know if other varieties would prove so hearty in storage but Matthew Wood indicates that the M. fistulosa he uses can last two years or more even when hung in the open air.
Every year, I divide my Monarda into several different piles. The finest, strongest and most intact flowers are dried for when really strong medicinal tea is needed. Other flowers and the strongest smelling top leaves are reserved for fresh plant tincture. Then we pick out the next best smelling leaves to dry for medicine, and what’s left is for food use. Even the “weakest” leaves, those reserved for flavoring, are incredibly strong, and one whiff of an open jar of two year old leaves can make your whole face tingle.
It’s not generally possible to buy Bee Balm in mainstream commerce, but some of the small herb farms like Nancy and Michael Phillips of Heartsong Farm do sell high quality leaf. In general, it’s such an abundant plant and seems to grow in nearly every corner of the county, that it’s well worthwhile to search out and harvest some of your own. It’s such a cheerful, beautiful flower that you just can’t help but be happy while you harvest it, adding a whole other dimension to its medicinal effects. Regardless of what species grows near you, the incredible and fragrant flower heads of Beebalm are lovely in the field, forest or garden. Easy to grow, any of the Monarda species are worth cultivating as a low maintenance patch of bee attracting wildflowers.
On days when the canyon is covered in snow and the drinking water all frozen solid, I pull out a jar of last year’s vibrant purple blossoms. Breathing in the sweet, spicy aroma brings back the warmth and bounty of mountain summers in the Gila when the air was thick with humming insects and the arroyo running high with monsoon rains. And a cup of steaming Bee Balm and Sunset Hyssop tea seems to warm the morning from the inside out.
Preparations: The ideal preparation for treating acute, serious infections is a tincture of fresh flowers with a few leaves. A tincture of fresh leaves or freshly dried leaves will suffice though, if flowers are unavailable. Dried leaves make an excellent infusion for diaphoretic purposes as well as less acute infections. Flowers and leaves are spicy and aromatic, and work great in a huge variety of dishes, and can also be added to salsas and hot sauces for flavor and kick. Fresh flowers infused in honey make an excellent burn dressing, cough syrup and an amazing, spicy treat just for taste. It’s also very nice when infused into oil or lard to make a salve or for food.
Dosage: The average dose for acute infections is a half dropper to a dropperful of the tincture every two hours for the first few days, and then taper off as symptoms disappear. I've also used an infusion of dried leaves with similar results, I recommend mixing it with mint, roses and oatstraw to mellow out the intense taste.
Cautions & Contradictions: Its euphoric nervine effect can have a somewhat ungrounding effect on individuals who are prone to feeling spaced out. It can be combined with a more grounding herb to help counterbalance this effect. Due to its slight stimulating effect upon the uterus, it is probably inappropriate during the early stages of a delicate pregnancy.