THE MEDICINE JOURNEYS: NOURISHMENT AND RITUALS FROM THE PLANTS
Last July, in the warmth and abundance of summer’s glow, I was excitedly gathering and preserving all the Bee Balm I could get my little hands on. It was overflowing in every drainage of my Northern Arizona forest home. Its magenta firework flower heads waving gently in the wind, mingling with the white beauty of yarrow, and deep purple spikes of vervain. They were taller and fatter than any I had ever seen in my 13 years of herbal wandering and medicine making. For years, oh how I would pray and scour the land hoping to find a stand that was big enough to harvest a few handfuls of the blossoms. But it was just at the edge of its range, not getting quite enough water to be abundant, it was, in pockets, but as drought wore on, I did see them growing smaller and fewer in Southern Arizona mountain lands.
But it is a hardly mint family perennial, which does happen to transplant fairly well, and I was able to start a little patch in my garden. But here, on the Colorado plateau, conditions are ideal for my friend bee balm. And I was swimming in an abundance of it, with so much gratitude. Because along with winter soups and hot steamy rooty herbal brews, bee balm is one of my go to winter allies, and oh- it is winter now! The freezing temperatures have taken all my herbs in the garden to sleep, and the land is covered over in snow, all I can pick these days is pinon and juniper (which do make nice brews themselves and are quite medicinal and wonderful in winter too!) But the blessing of summer, is the abundance of winter stores....especially from my sweet and spicy friend Bee Balm. Also known as Monarda, and sometimes goes by bergamot, oregano de la sierra, or sweet leaf, it is monarda fistulosa var. menthaefolia to which I am offering this ode. There are many varieties of monarda, red flowered m. didyma grows in many gardens across the country, and there are countless other wild and spicy spp varying by region.
Just like its favored name in this region, oregano de la sierra, (mountain oregano), it has a delightful and strong oregano taste, aroma and spice. And it is so lovely included in winter soups, stews, meat rubs, and sauces. It is even delicious as a piquant and intense pesto when made in summer fresh, and frozen for later months. But in addition to its yumminess as a wild spice and food, its medicinal value is unparalleled. I could pare down my apothecary to just 10-15 herbs, and this is one I would NOT forgo.
Bee Balm flower infused honey is a winter dream stirred into hot tea or water, soothing a sore throat, easing a cough or combating winter infections I always make sure to have a jar of bee balm honey made from the bright pink flowers, and besides, who can resist something so beautiful? You can make bee balm vinegar which is medicinal and tasty to sprinkle on beans and rice as well, leaving the beautiful flowers in the jar, or to use in salad dressings.
I also tincture up loads of the fresh leaves and flowers for an infection kicker outer. Seriously, I haven’t ever seen this stuff not make a huge difference in varying forms of bacterial infections- be it a sinus infection, stomach flu, UTI, strep throat, and even vaginal yeast infections. Much like the oregano oil sold in stores, it has many similar compounds and aromatic oils, but in a form that is far more tolerable to the body, and just as effective without burning your mucous membranes. Typically if I’m working on treating infections at home, I take my herbal allies of choice hourly, or at the least every two. Frequency is key here. And i have noted over and over that infections treated effectively at home with herbs dramatically improve within 24-36 hrs, and fully resolve in about 4-5 days. If that is not the case, then I tend to err on the side of caution and get medical assistance. Especially if you are working with a client, friend or child. Sometimes switching up the herbs or adding others to the protocol helps too. For bee balm, 1 dropper hourly usually does the trick, and I often blend it with other helpers, like Alder, Usnea, Yarrow or Oregon Grape Root, or even with Elderberries if I’m dealing with a viral cold or flu.
Bee Balm leaf and flower tea is just as effective at kicking the infectious bugaboos out, but the taste is quite strong and for many people unpalatable to intolerable, it is both spicy, hot, and medicinal tasting in tea blends. Mixing it with lots of peppermint can take the edge off, but go slow with this form if you want to get your friends and family to love and use bee balm. I generally include it in a warming, stimulating, sweat inducing diaphoretic tea blend at the first sign of a cold, sniffle, cough or flu. Also when dealing with UTI or gut infections more fluids are effective.
1 pt bee balm
1 pt yarrow
1 pt elderflower
3 pt peppermint
Steep 10 min and sip as hot as possible. Add honey if desired.
Raising the body temperature and supporting a healthy fever response is an effective way to treat winter illnesses. Most bacterial and viral infections cannot continue to live and reproduce at temperatures higher than 99℉ in the body. A fever is a sign the body is doing its job to combat the infection, not a sign that things are getting worse. Granted, a fever that gets too hot can be uncomfortable (though the dangers may be overstated, check this out from Seattle Childrens Hospital), and using gentle diaphoretic herbs can help to open the pores and break the fever, bringing the temperature down just enough. Gargling with the luke warm tea or even the tincture mixed in warm saline is a wonderful sore throat remedy, the whole plant is high in tissue numbing essential oils, similar to cloves. I do also use the tea or tincture as a skin wash or compress for infections, boils, or fungus like athletes foot, ringworm, etc. Also, used as a sinus steam, dried leaves crumbled into hot water, and inhaled, is an effective way to treat sinus woes, while taking tincture internally as well.
That all said, it’s one of those herbs you can just keep around, and put it in your food, and give yourself a sinus steam with, or add a muslin bag full in your bath, or just drizzle infused honey in your tea every day. It’s safe, it’s rather yummy, and one of those plant friends you just want to play with every day or so during the cold season. It is a very heating herb, so folks who tend to get overheated or run hot may want to use it in moderation on a day to day basis.
Every time I look at those beautiful honey blossoms or sprinkle the fragrant leaves in my soup, I remember the glow and abundance of summer, and it warms my spirit and my body. And I’ve turned to it so often in my herbal practice and day to day living experiences with infections, and I’ve seen it do amazing work, reliably. And if it is not a plant that grows near where you live, it is easy to grow in a garden space, and can take quite a bit of heat and drought and still be potent and will grow back each winter from the spreading roots. Noting, that as a mint family plant, it does tend to spread, so give it a nice roomy patch to grow, and you’ll have medicine to last for years to come!