By April Punsalan For The Island Eye News
Eastern horsemint (Monarda punctata), a native coastal herb, contains aromatic oils that bring delight to cooking and resilience to the body. This mighty herb contains up to 75% thymol, an essential oil with a sweet, peppery taste, known to be present in culinary herbs such as oregano and thyme. Anytime a student tastes Eastern horsemint, they say “it tastes like oregano.” Indeed, it tastes so similar to oregano that I call it our native oregano. I add Eastern horsemint to spaghetti, pizza, minestrone (any tomato dish), omelets, quiches, yeast breads, black beans, and potatoes. I substitute Eastern horsemint for any recipe that calls for oregano. Beyond its culinary excellence, Eastern horsemint is a powerful medicinal herb. Scientific research has shown that this mighty herb is an antimicrobial fighting machine, thanks to the high thymol content, inhibiting harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It is not surprising that this herb serves as a remedy for respiratory ailments, including the cold, the flu, sore throat, and sinus infections. Also, Eastern horsemint has a long history of use for gastrointestinal disorders such as flatulence, nausea, constipation, and stomach cramps. The indigenous people along the Eastern seaboard knew the strength of this herb. They (Cherokee, Delaware, and Nanticoke) used it to relieve headaches, promote restful sleep, aid digestion, strengthen weak bowels, break a fever, and to relieve inflammation. Thankfully, Eastern horsemint grows abundantly along dunes, roadsides, and within the Maritime forests along the South Carolina Coast. It is an easy herb to spot and right now is the perfect time to forage it. You don’t have to be a botanist to find it! Eastern horsemint has striking pinkish bracts subtending yellow flowers speckled with maroon dots. If that sounds like foreign language to you, don’t worry, just look for an herbaceous plant knee to waist height with pink (bracts) and yellow flowers.
If in doubt, crush a few leaves to confirm the identification, Eastern horsemint is highly aromatic and smells like oregano. Another distinguishing factor is the long, grayish green leaves that arise from the stem opposite of each other. If you live on the island or are visiting, I guarantee it grows within a mile of where you reside and you can go find it today! Harvest the aerial portion, the leafy flowering stems. Tie bundles of three to five stems together with twine or a rubber band, and hang upside down to dry in your kitchen.
Once dry and brittle (after approximately seven days), crush the herb with your hands and store in glass spice jars to use throughout the winter. When you do harvest, make sure to leave some for the pollinators, as bees love Eastern horsemint. Better yet, try to grow some in your yard for you and the pollinators. Look closely, it may already grow there! Don’t worry if you don’t have a green thumb — no water or nutrients needed, only full sun. Give Eastern horsemint space in your garden, and it will take care of you for many moons to come.