Bee Balm – New Mexico’s Oregano of the Mountains
January Blogparty – Spices
Common names: Bee Balm, Horsemint, Mountain Mint, Oregano de la Sierra, Oregano del Campo, Oswego Tea, Monarda, Wild Bergemot, Elk Medicine, Perfume Plant, Sweet Leaf
Many of us tend to think of common kitchen spices as those from exotic locations –cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg or even black pepper — but I want to talk about a native American spice. While Bee Balm 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 Bee Balm’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, Bee Balm has an incredible range of subtlety and heat. Here in the 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.
Bee Balm 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. Many traditional Hopi and Navajo dishes call specifically for Bee Balm, and many indigenous cooks 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 very 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, Loba and I divide our Bee Balm harvest 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.
I don’t know if it’s possible to buy Bee Balm in mainstream commerce, though 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 Bee Balm 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.
Those of you familiar with my blog as well as other herbwife-ish blogs will probably have noticed some of the many references to Bee Balm for medicinal uses. So while Bee Balm may not be that terribly common in general use, it certainly is enjoying a revival among the newest crop of traditional herbalists. Authors such as Matthew Wood and Michael Moore can also be thanked for their revitalization of such a common and necessary herb.
Bee Balm is incredibly versatile as a medicine, and I’ve written about it here in the Medicine Woman’s Roots on numerous other occasions. I use it for infections of any kind, from UTIs to toothaches to yeast infections as well as lung grunge and external wounds and burns. It’s great used as a steam for congested sinuses or lungs, and makes a wonderful foot wash for tired feet or poor circulation. Bee Balm is 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, Bee Balm’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.
Most appropriately, a honey made from the flowers is a tasty and effective treatment for sore throats, and for anything else you might use Bee Balm 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 Bee Balm 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.
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.
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood
Wild Plants and Natives Peoples of the Four Corners by William Dunmire and Gail Tierney
Personal Correspondence with Jim McDonald
Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown
Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher