Bee Balm in my garden
Paul Stamets, mycologist (mushroom expert) and author states that plants that live in a particular habitat develop their own immune systems. When I read those words I realized that on some level I have sensed this truth ever since I first began to use herbs for healing purposes but I never really thought about it until I read that statement.
However, when I first started using herbs medicinally it seemed important that I gather them from around my house, or in nearby field and forest. After reading Paul’s declaration I realized that using an herb from my woods or garden was probably going to be more effective in treating a problem I have because I am already living in a habitat that is sensitized to any potential health problems that might arise with respect to its inhabitants including me, and because I am in direct relationship with my land. An “Ah –Ha” moment.
Of course, this notion makes little sense unless one predicates it on the belief that all life is interconnected at a fundamental mycelial level. Without fungus, no life could have arisen on land. Today scientific evidence supports the idea that all life is connected by the net of mycelium that stretches across the earth’s land mass underground – “the wood wide web”.
Anyone that studies plants learns quickly that each species has defense mechanisms that protect the plant. For example, many have anti-viral, anti –bacterial, anti-inflammatory properties, and plants that live together work together so extending this notion to include habitat immunization makes good sense.
The second idea that motivated me to work with some plants and not with others was based on my personal relationships with certain herbs. Some plants seemed to resonate with me more than others and it was those plants I was drawn to. I used my intuition and other senses to make these decisions even while the doubter droned on. Eventually, the positive results of my use of a particular herb shut the annoying voice up.
When I studied medicinal plants in the Amazon I learned that these Indigenous people, like me, used the plants that grew naturally in the areas they inhabited and they too made their decisions based on having personal relationships with certain plants, some of which spoke to them. Each healer had an individual garden located in the area in which s/he lived, on the edge of the community. Healers in other villages that were located further up the Amazonian tributaries (some were days away by dugout) treated the same ailments using the plants that grew there; some were the same, others were different. All treatments seemed to work, which baffled me until I learned that herbs grown in a specific area would probably benefit the people who lived in direct relationship with that particular piece of land even if they were different.
What united me to people of the Amazon, Indigenous peoples, and other country folk like me was that all of us were in relationships with plants and a particular place, something many folks in this transient western culture don’t ever experience. I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason we can continue to decimate the planet – a lack of belonging to place? I know lots of people who own houses and property but never develop a relationship with their land and without it a person remains rootless. Soul-less?
I love my little house, but it was built on land that claimed me the first time I set foot on it in the fog and rain. The visceral sense of belonging slammed through me, leaving me stunned almost senseless. When I came to I can still remember the sounds of water drawing me towards the brook and the red buck with his velvet antlers….
Still, I could have never imagined what is so obvious to me now after living in New Mexico for four winters. I thought I could leave home in exchange for a warmer winter climate, but this land refused to let me go. Although I loved being a desert visitor, I was never able to put down roots there.
I have a deeply personal relationship with the earth as a whole but ‘my land’ contains me; I am wed to her and to the forests, fields, ponds, and mountains here in Maine. So, to return to the subject of herbs, it’s not surprising that I am naturally drawn to use herbs that grow in this area because they are the ones that will be most useful. The soils (composed of thousands/trillions of miles of mycelium) in which these plants grow have antiviral, antibacterial, properties etc. that make the plants powerful healers.
Just now I am awash in the scarlet, wine, and magenta flowers of bee balm, an herb that seemed to ‘choose’ me as soon as I planted a few shoots of it the first year I lived here. I watched it spread through my entire flower garden eventually spilling over the edges to grow wild around the house. I still gaze out my windows with stark amazement at this plant that is still popping up in new places.
Hummingbirds love the flowers and presently I must have at least 50 hummingbirds that are happily extracting flower nectar from dawn to dusk. Of all my pollinators, bee balm seems to draw in the most bees and butterflies at this time of year (July and August)… I always keep a flower or two in the house and I love to walk around crushing a leaf or two to release bee balm’s scent.
I collect bee balm leaves to include in the ‘sun tea’ I make, dry others for winter use. I also use the leaves to relieve the itches caused by bug bites. All parts of the plants are edible but I can never eat the flowers – they are simply too beautiful! If I develop a cold I use the infused leaves to keep nasal passages open. A tea made from the leaves relieves nausea from gastric upset. Inhaling the leaves acts as a bronchial dialator. Studies of the herbs antibacterial, antimycotic, and anti-inflammatory properties demonstrate that bee balm inhibits microorganism growth and is superior to hydrocortisone when used in combination with vitamin B6.
Bee balm is native to the Northeastern United States, but also grows on the west coast and down into Mexico. The plant grows wild near streams, woodland edges, and in abandoned fields. It belongs to the mint family. Most sources say it needs full sun, but I can attest to the fact that it thrives in partial shade because during the summer my deciduous trees shade most of the bee balm I grow here.
Every July, I look forward to ‘fire on the mountain’ as this plant begins to bloom bringing in masses of pollinators who are drawn much like the hummingbirds are to the scarlet blooms in particular. These plants also repel other garden pests. Now that we are approaching mid August I am noticing that the blossoms have a raggedy look to them, and soon the season will come to a close…. But there is always next year. Personally, I can’t imagine having a garden that didn’t include this most beautiful and useful herb.