I’ve come to believe that if you are open to it, plants will come into your life when they are needed. Or when you are ready to understand them. Most recently for me, this plant is Monarda fistulosa.
Until this summer, it was not an herb I was familiar with; we had just never crossed paths. I knew next to nothing about it until a muggy, rainy afternoon a few weeks ago.
I had been feeling particularly wound up that day, my worries churning around in my head, and I had an unsettled feeling in my gut which was actually beginning to manifest as a sharp ache. After I finished my work for the day, I had come out to the fields hoping to calm my mind, get some fresh air, and be with the plants. Usually that works like a charm, but not this time.
I was in a bitch mood, frankly, and nothing could change that. I trudged broodingly down grassy lanes and around wide, open wetlands, glowering at the now-drooping heads of catnip, scowling at withered stalks of mullein.
But then, suddenly, I came upon a big patch of purple, raggedy headed flowers peering out from an overbearing stand of jewelweed and stopped in my tracks. Monarda! There were bees everywhere, zipping frantically from flower to flower. The strong, spicy scent of the blossoms filled the air.
I took a few snips from that first patch, and as I continued on my hike, I found more and more of it. It seemed to be everywhere; it had completely surrounded a small pond, where hummingbirds were flitting around in a freakout of joy. I easily filled up a small paper bag with the fragrant flowers, thinking I would make a tincture, a salve, and still have enough left to dry and use in tea.
Driving home, I saw it everywhere, dotting the green fields with patches of soft purple. I don’t know how I missed it at first; I must have been really caught up in my own thoughts.
By the time I got back to my house, I had again sunk into the depths of bitchery. The world was a shithole from my perspective that day. I could feel acid in my stomach.
This seems dramatic I’m sure, but understand that I’m an Irish-German redhead with a Physics degree and unresolved issues from my younger life. Just think about that a bit.
After storming pointlessly around my kitchen for a while, I went out to my porch to sort through the herbs I’d gathered and lay them out to dry. The monarda smelled so delicious and looked so appealing that I decided to make a tea from it. I popped two of the fresh flower heads into my cup and let them steep for a good 15-20 minutes.
After I finished up with the rest of the herbs, I took my cup of tea outside, sat down, and stared hatefully into the trees.
A few sips into that delicious brew, something happened. The world actually looked brighter. It was like my senses were sharper. The leaves were sooo pretty and green, and after the morning’s dark skies, I noticed that it had cleared up, and patches of blue were showing. There were birds singing in the grape vines. I felt the heat leaving my head, my stomach. The acid went away, the ache in my gut stopped, my muscles relaxed. I was like an overheated engine cooling down. The world was not shit after all.
Monarda had drawn all that heat of anger out of me and helped me to see clearly again.
After my great experience with monarda, I looked through all the herbals on my shelf to find out more about it. The only one in which I found monarda was Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Honestly, his entry about Monarda is so fascinating and detailed that I encourage everyone to read it in his book (and indeed to invest in a copy of it if you’re studying herbalism). But I’ll attempt a much simplified summary of what I learned about it.
Monarda fistulosa, also commonly known as bee balm, Oswego tea, horsemint, or wild bergamot, is a gorgeous, richly scented member of the mint family. It has distinctive purple flowers and a rich, warm scent due to its high amount of volatile oils.
Wood refers to this plant as Sweet Leaf, the name given to it by Native American practitioners, who understand this plant deeply and have been using it since long before white men ever set foot on this continent. I too now think of that as it’s real name.
Not one of the more popular herbs, Sweet Leaf is at times overlooked outside of Native American medicine.
Sweet Leaf is indicated for drawing out all kinds of heat. When chewed (and therefore mixed with saliva), it can take the sting out of a sunburn and speed the healing of the skin.
Taken internally, it will draw out internal heat. Its diaphoretic action brings down fever and reduces internal inflammation, especially in the digestive tract, the kidneys and urinary tract, and the lungs.
Because of its antibacterial properties, it is useful in treating bladder and yeast infections. In fact, Wood reports success when using it against chronic candida overgrowth, which, among other things, could very well be a main cause of leaky gut. Wood explains that excess yeasts in the digestive tract could hold open the tiny pores in the walls of the intestines, allowing microscopic pathogens to escape and causing the associated symptoms.
Sweet Leaf is also deeply repairing and calming to the nerves, which can be an aid to the digestive system in itself. Indeed, Wood believes that this plant can help people on such a deep level that it allows them to appreciate their surroundings and the beauty of natural world much more.
When I had that first cup of Sweet Leaf infusion, I knew only that it was a great herb to try for relieving tension. The fact that I experienced many of the benefits discussed above, without knowing exactly what I should be experiencing, verifies for me that the assertions made about this herb are true.
It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life, and I’m so grateful to have it as part of my medicine cabinet now (well, technically it’s now an overflowing, semi-disorganized closet). Since that first harvest, I’ve used it a number times for tension, digestive upset, and as a general mood booster, and it’s never let me down.
So…you should go get some! Although it’s a bit late in the season, there are still many patches of Sweet Leaf blooming.
To harvest it, just look for a healthy patch and snip off the top third of the plant. I find it to be equally good fresh or dried as a tea, with just a couple of sprigs to a cup making a really tasty and relaxing drink. I have yet to test my tincture and oil, as they are still brewing, but I have high hopes!
Because of it’s similarity to oregano, Sweet Leaf can also be used in cooking. It would be excellent in soups, pastas and rolls. I’m going to try it on a homemade pizza next!
Sweet Leaf is such a gentle herb with so many uses that I believe no home should be without it. I hope you’ll gather some, spend time with it, and experience for yourself the gifts of this plant.