Elegance and Brawn
Text and photo ©Christine Maxa
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa var. menthifolia)
The Boston Tea Party, a defining event leading to America’s Revolutionary War, also had another life-changing result. The event severely impacted the tea-drinking habits of the young Americans. An event that took place almost a year later sealed the tea-drinkers’ fate when fifty-one women in the Thirteen American Colonies signed a document at an event called the Edenton Tea Party (it took place in Edenton, North Carolina) proclaiming they supported their fellow colonists’ resistance to taxation without representation. Instead of doing this incognito like the men impersonating Mohawk Indians in Boston, the ladies did this as an open act of treason. They declared they would boycott English imports, including tea, signed the proclamation, and sent the document directly to King George.
Well! With the beloved China tea long tossed into the drink and a boycott formally in place, accounts state the ladies of the colonies created herbal alternatives called Patriot Teas or Liberty Teas. These teas contained ingredients culled from streamsides, forests, and meadows. Oswego Tea, made from Wild Bergamot’s East of the Mississippi cousin Monarda didyma, became a favorite. The common name stemmed from the place where they first learned of the herb, Oswego, New York.
Native peoples used members of the Monarda clan long before English footsteps imprinted American shores. The Iroquois, who introduced Monarda didyma to the colonists, used the wildflower as their go-to mint for healing and sweat baths; Chippewa used it in the bath when their children had “eruptions” and then rubbed the little ones “with tallow, venison tallow if possible;” Ojibwa took sips of a decoction made from the root for intestinal pain; and it was the Menominee remedy for catarrh.(1) So you can imagine how healthy the colonists got.
Carl Linnaeus named the genus after the Spanish medico Nicolás Monardes. The smell of Monarda fistulosa reminded Monardes of the citrus bergamot, which is how, the story goes, our Southwest species got the common name of Wild Bergamot. Monarda fistulosa has a piquant oregano bite that packs a wallop on the taste buds. It also packs a wallop in the chemistry department. More on that later.
An American Beauty
Monardes, history tells us, was always open to new medicine and became fixated with the botanicals arriving from the New World. He grew what plants he could in his garden and studied them for medical use. Of note, Monardes lived an uncommonly long life for the time — eighty to ninety-five years — and even dodged becoming a casualty during a brief epidemic of The Plague, which he owed to drinking sassafras water.
Continuing on M. fistulosa’s scientific name, fistulosa is a Latin word described to mean “full of pipes,” as in shepherd flutes, referring to the cluster of long tubular florets that crowns the plant — a poetic description befitting the elegance of Wild Bergamot's mauve- to lavender-colored flowers. Menthifolia tells us the leaves look just like those of the Mentha family, to which Wild Bergamot belongs. But it's not just another mint.
Wild Bergamot’s dozens of florets on each flower contain abundant caches of nectar, and they bloom at different times. When one floret fades, another opens and offers a fresh supply of nectar, which hints to its abundant and nurturing nature. The lower petal of each floret forms a landing pad for bees, but the flower is more practically designed for the sphinx moth’s long proboscis. The stamens follow the contour of the top petal so that when a hovering moth takes a sip from the pool of nectar deeply embedded in the flower’s crown, it can’t help but brush against the pollen.
Like its fellow mints, the Mondarda species is rich in essential oils. The main players in M. fistulosa are:
The Southwest’s M. fistulosa has a higher amount of carvacrol compared to its cousin east of the Mississippi, which has higher concentrations of thymol.
Carvacrol is special stuff. Its come-and-get-it scent attracts pollinators from a distance (2) and practically makes a sphinx moth salivate. Consequently, you’ll see the diurnal moths fluttering incessantly around the Wild Bergamot patch — something all Americans might consider doing since it has all kinds of wonderful properties. Here’s carvacrol’s vita:
antimicrobial (inhibits the growth of Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella enterica) (3)(4);
antigenotoxic (protects genetic material from toxins) (5);
AChE inhibitory (Alzheimer’s disease)(6);
anti-elastase (anti-skin-aging—greater than ascorbic acid) (7);
So our North American native is not only nurturing and beautiful to behold, it contains a powerful ensemble of curative agents.
The Heat Buster
Used externally, Monarda makes a great liniment that can melt a stubborn muscle spasm or help prevent a bruise from forming after a trauma. A salve that contains Wild Bergamot makes a formidable wound remedy. My experience has found Wild Bergamot can soothe a fresh burn as efficiently as the gel from a chunk of an aloe vera plant (Burn? What burn?); then follow it up post-blister with Cottonwood Bud salve to complete the job. Nice.
Monarda seems to have an affinity for heat—it matters not what the source, be it fever, tummy trauma, sinus woes, liver tilt, or burns — and it has the chemistry to tend to any microbial mess the congestion might leave behind. I recently saw a colony of M. pectinata growing by a charred log and thought, Isn’t that just like Mondarda?!
Monarda pectinata grows in a burn area — an object lesson on the whole family's connection with heat issues? Drawing on its mint characteristics of movement, I like to add a flower from M. pecrtinata to certain infusions to set things in motion.
If you ask me, Wild Bergamot shines when it comes to microbes, especially the kind that makes you feel, as the Navajo would say, “somehow,” which is in a way that might fit in the category of a malaise, a brain-gut malady, or being yeasty. Wild Bergamot can calm and cool the afflicted organ(s) of the body and zap the bugs. It’s legend for tackling urinary tract and yeast infections, the latter of which can be the result of the former.
Wild Bergamot also knows how to handle powerful toxins. Its Latin name of fistulosa, while referring to the hollow shape of the florets, literally translates as "fistulous." Plain words have plain meanings. A fistula, quoting Merriam Webster, is "an abnormal passage that leads from an abscess or hollow organ or part to the body surface or from one hollow organ or part to another and that may be surgically created to permit passage of fluids or secretions."
When formed from a point of inflammation that festers into an infection, the fistula becomes the pathway for the body to offload toxins; something the good doctor Monardes would be keen on. Coincidence? Maybe. Applying the plain word rule, it’s brilliant. The combination of Wild Bergamot’s high carvacrol content and its ability to move congestion makes it an invaluable ally to safely shepherd toxins out of the system. I’ve observed this action, and I think it’s remarkable.
Are you getting a feel for what Wild Bergamot is all about? This nurturing herb is a rare combination of elegance and brawn.
The Rest of the Story
So we know, as our wildlands forefathers knew, that Wild Bergamot excels at toxins and tummy issues. What about the brain part of brain-gut issues? Carvacrol has been a subject of interest when it comes to crossing the blood brain barrier and what effects it might wrought. One study determined it does cross the barrier and concluded about Mondara, “If regularly ingested in low concentrations, it might determine feelings of well-being and could possibly have positive reinforcer effects.” (10)
Yup. That’s Wild Bergamot. A dropper-ful can initially make you feel happy, elated, euphoric, zippy, zoned and practically painless — something worth remembering in moments of acute pain or stress. Remember its constituent p-cymene? Its actions include anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive (stops pain), anxiolytic (reduces anxiety), as well as antioxidant, anticancer, and antimicrobial actions.(11) Wild Bergamot's other main player, carvacrol acts on TRPA1 cellular channels, which are pain sensors.(12)
The more interesting part is that carvacrol has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective ability (13) that can prevent neurological deterioration caused by increased oxidation (14).
Like the abundance of its florets, Wild Bergamot has many facets. It's nurturing, it's elegant, and it's a brawny healer. Wild Bergamot is not just another mint.
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1) Examples from Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown.
(12) Molecules 2020, 25, 4873; doi:10.3390/molecules25214873