Monarda fistulosa, aka Bee Balm, is one of those old-timey home remedy plants that hasn’t gotten a ton of glory in recent times. It’s a member of the mint family that grows to around waist-high or so and attracts loads of bees, hence the common name Bee Balm.
Maybe Monarda’s been overshadowed by Rosemary and Sage, both of whom are well-known for their ability to help the body fight off germs, including common cold (a coronavirus-type virus), flu, and both bacterial and fungal infections. Monarda has some skills in those directions, too.
Monarda has been used for a variety of respiratory and digestive complaints through the ages. It’s got some of the same chemical constituents as Thyme, one of my personal favorites for defeating some of the really tough cold/flus my family has faced over the past decade. That gives Monarda a spicy-zing scent and flavor reminiscent of Thyme but not quite as in-your-face. I’d take a cup of Monarda tea over Thyme tea any day of the week!
How-to Make Herbal Extractions with Monarda
One of the challenges of working with a less popular herb is that finding good info on proportions and technique for making medicine with them can be challenging. I did a quick survey of my favorite medicine-making and wildcrafting references and found nothing. The good thing about having studied medicine-making techniques and wildcrafting plus having experimented a lot is I can make some educated guesses. Combine that with listening to what the plants have to say about it, and you have a leg-up.
First off, I’m using fresh Monarda to start both my tincture and vinegar. Most medicine-making references suggest a 1:2 ratio of plant material to alcohol. I’ve struggled with this every time I’ve tried it. My solution for this batch was to let the plants sit on my back porch table in the cool shade for 24 hours to wilt a bit. That helped them let go of a lot of their water. I used 200 proof grain alcohol to compensate for the water that was left in them, but I used a ratio of closer to 1:5 rather than 1:2. The 1:2 ratio didn’t give me enough liquid to properly blend – the mixture was too dry. Increasing the alcohol side of the ratio gave me enough liquid to blend and to ensure the plant material was completely covered by liquid as it sat to infuse.
I used a 1:5 ratio for my vinegar extraction for the same reason. For this particular extraction, I used Raw Apple Cider vinegar. It was handy. I have some super-sour kombucha I’ve used for other extractions, like the Cleavers vinegar I made earlier in the spring. It works well, too. I generally use my vinegar extractions as Kitchen Medicine, in my cooking and daily drinks for family and friends. Often, I don’t bother to measure at all, but today measuring my ingredients and choosing my ratio with intention felt right. I was inspired by @verdantnoctis on Instagram for my Monarda Vinegar Extract.
Note: I plan to add a bit of garlic to a portion of the finished vinegar later so I can try both with and without garlic to get a better feel for Mondarda’s flavor in vinegar.
For both Vinegar and Alcohol Extractions of Monarda, I used this simple procedure:
- Strip the wilted Monarda leaves and weigh them. I used 50 grams of wilted leaves/tops for each extraction.
- Measure 500 ml of liquid (alcohol or vinegar).
- Add the wilted leaves and liquid to a blender or food processor (I tried both; they worked equally well for me), and blend until you’ve got what looks a bit like a smoothie.
- Pour the blended mixture into a glass canning jar or similar vessel you can later cap tightly. Scrape any plant material that’s left in the blender or food processor into the caning jar, too.
- Cap and label it and set it aside to infused for a couple of weeks.
It’s helpful if you remember to shake your infusion regularly. I often don’t, so I often let mine stand a few months instead of a few weeks. Strain out and compost the plant material when it’s had time to infuse. The longer it goes, the stronger the medicine is likely to be….but if you let it sit more than a half a year or so it’s unlikely to continue to strengthen.
Using Monarda as Medicine
Monarda is one of the herbs that crosses the line between the apothecary and the kitchen. I have used mine mostly as medicine by adding dried Monarda leaf to steams and tea blends for colds, flus, and similar respiratory illness. It makes a good partner for other herbs like yarrow, elder flower, mullein, and spearmint for clearing the sinuses. I like Monarda tincture in place of thyme tincture for similar conditions.
In the kitchen, Monarda has a bit of a bite, too. I’m using my vinegar primarily as a salad dressing ingredient. I love making fresh vinegar-and-oil salad dressings each week. I use them on salads, of course, but also on simple stir-fry style meals and on beans. I use my salad dressings like a finishing sauce, drizzling a little on before serving to give our foods a little digestive kick. Monarda is particularly lovely for the spring and fall meals, when your digestive fire may be a little challenged and your immune system is shifting as well. Monarda can help your body transition through the transitional seasons more powerfully by supporting your digestive and immune systems. Plus, it’s darn tasty!