The Apian Tummy Tonic

Text and photo ©Christine Maxa


DESERT LAVENDER (Hyptis emoryi)

Desert Lavender is not the easiest herb to spot. You usually smell its namesake lavender scent before you see this Lower Sonoran Desert denizen that ranges from 4,000 feet and below (as well as in the California desert, southern Nevada, and southern New Mexico). The unobtrusive bush often grows in narrow drainages or perched on rocky slopes not readily in sight. When you do spot the gangly bush, you might see a handful of bees busily collecting nectar, which it generously produces. Its other common name is Bee Sage. More about bees later.


Typical of Lamiaceae, or Mint Family, members, Desert Lavender has square stems. When you rub its leaves, just like its cousin mints, it releases an aromatic scent. The story behind the mint family members’ signature scent can be found in mythology.




The scientific name for mint — mentha — comes from a Grecian water nymph, Minthe, who lived along Cocytus, one of the four rivers of the underworld whose name means river of wailing. Minthe made the transition from nymph to mint when an affair between her and Hades became underworld news. When Hades’ wife, Persephone, found out, she turned Minthe into a plant so inconspicuous that people would step on her. Hades had a heart, however, and imbued Minthe with a divine, aromatic scent.


That scent, an essential oil, is where mint’s medicine lies.


Another of Arizona’s mint members, wild mint (Mentha arvensis), makes a perfect object lesson on mint’s mythological roots. This species grows along high-country streams or in moist meadows. (Folklore says nymphs generally like to hang out around mountain meadows, streams, and rivers.) Like Desert Lavender, it doesn’t readily show itself. But while Desert Lavender blends in with the desert landscape, Wild Mint hides among emerald grasses. When you walk along a high-country stream, you often smell the sweet mint aroma before you notice the plant underfoot.




Generally, olden writers thought mint refreshed the brain (more on this in the The Brain-Gut Connection below) and sparked the memory. Pliny wrote, “the smell of Mint doth stir up the minde and taste to a greedy desire of meat.” While Pliny might have alluded that mint makes a perfect aperitif — it does nudge the bile a bit, which starts the digestive process and an appetite — mint leans heavily on the digestif side, and Desert Lavender is no exception.


Desert Lavender has three major components that define its medicinal activity: betulinic acid, oleanolic acid, and ursolic acid. And these are pentacyclic triterpenoids, meaning they have anti-inflammatory, liver-protecting, antihypertensive, ulcer-preventing, and antitumor activity.


The betulinic acid imparts great pain-relieving action; research specifically mentions chronic pain caused by nerve injury (Bellampalli et al., 2018). I like to combine it with its compadre Mexican goldpoppy because, generally speaking, mint moves and calms and goldpoppy calms and dissipates.


The oleanolic acid protects the liver and helps the liver regenerate. Chinese medicine often includes herbs with oleanolic acid for liver disorders, including viral hepatitis (Yagashita, et al., 2016). Oleanolic acid has also showed beneficial effects in research regarding kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory conditions (Shamsizadeh et al., 2017).


That ursolic acid, a big player in rosemary’s chemistry, offers invaluable protection when it comes to inflammation, heart disease, brain function, and cancer — especially colon cancer, which is right in line with mint’s affinity for the digestive system.



Taking that affinity a step further, Desert Lavender is a shoo-in for working with the brain-gut connection because, in part, it contains antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and antiparasitic thymol. Research is rife with links between digestion, mood, health, and the way we think, including a connection between gastrointestinal irritation and depression and anxiety. Remember how the Mint Family likes to hang out around Cocytus — that river of wailing whose name is taken from the Greek word for lamentation (grief, complaining, sobbing)? No little connection there.


In fact, mint acts as a nervine. Most every member of the Mint Family contains characteristics to soothe nerves and the stomach. Mint, it matters not which species you use, is a mover and can readily clear congestion anywhere in the body. Sometimes tummy nerves can get a bit jumpy before they settle down in some people. So you might want to add a little rose to keep things cool and calm during the process and, while you're at it, some calendula to heal and assist the lymphatic system with clearing out microbial detritus.


That thymol, though toxic to micro-organisms but not humans or the environment, is a natural pesticide. Which brings us back to the bees’ love of Desert Lavender. Recent research on honeybees found the thymol in Mint family plants can heal the digestion of the honeybee. Thymol’s antiparasitic actions helps rid the hive of mites. So the next time you see a honeybee, you might have a Desert Lavender plant to thank for playing a part in keeping Earth’s bees alive.

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