I have an acquaintance who is the son and brother of beekeepers. He was telling me that honey made from desert and arid regions is more pungently flavored than honey from more humid regions. I had never thought of it before–obviously I have more honey sampling to do and I should get on that ASAP–but I remember trying a honey from the Pacific Northwest and finding it disappointingly bland, while the honeys I have had from Southern California have been the best I’ve ever tasted.
I don’t know whether this is due to the plant species used by the bees, or the environmental conditions in which those plants are growing. That is, would a sage honey from Oregon be less flavorful than a sage honey from Arizona? Or is sage less likely to be utilized by Northwest Coast bees versus Southwest bees? I know that I have sampled many orange blossom honeys, but only those from Southern California have had a clear citrus and orange blossom taste for me. (Any apiarists out there want to set me straight on this? I welcome your input.)
Anyway, this got me thinking about the medicinal actions and potencies of plants in different regions. I am pretty new to this part of the US, and am not very knowledgeable about the full diversity of flora; but it does seem to me that there are a lot of native plants here in the mint (Lamiaceae) family–the fragrant rosemary and “other herbs” described by Juan Bautista de Anza in the 18th century, which we now classify as plants of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities. Mint family plants contain lots of volatile oils which give them their potent aromas and flavors. The family includes the most popular culinary and medicinal herbs, such as basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, lemon balm, marjoram, lavender, peppermint, and spearmint. Although there is considerable variability in the mint family–there are around 7000 known species–the most popular ones tend to share similar properties. For example, many are relaxing nervines with analgesic and antimicrobial properties, useful for stomach upset and insomnia (among other things). Spiritually and magically, they are frequently considered to have cleansing and protective powers. This is not to say mint family members are interchangeable. Lavender is not the same thing as peppermint! But there is a family resemblance.
As I have said before, it seems silly to me to import white sage for smudging in Europe (for example) when there are perfectly good plants that grow abundantly there and will do the same job. I think the natural native flora of any region (except maybe the Arctic?) contains sufficient to meet the basic medicinal needs of humans and animals that live on that land. But it does seem likely to me that the plant life in each region will have its own special strengths. Along those lines, I would say that one of the most salient features of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities is their potent cleansing power (both material and spiritual). There are also a number of plants that assist in moisture management, which to me makes perfect sense in this arid land (I hope to address that in another post).
Here I want to look at some uses of the genus Salvia in general. Because there are so many varieties of Salvia in a “sage scrub” community, I won’t differentiate each species here. According to ethnobotanical research, these uses include:
- treating respiratory problems (colds, coughs, sore throat, chest congestion, flu, pneumonia, nasal congestion, asthma)
- treating other illnesses (measles, fever, gonorrhea, epilepsy, faintness, diarrhea)
- treating pain (headache, stomachache, indigestion, earache, gas, bad reactions to poison oak)
- treating infections, sores, and for post-partum healing
- cleansing the body (shampoo, deodorant, eyewash)
- preventing bad luck and dispelling ghosts
- as a blood tonic and general strengthener
- as food, beverage, and culinary seasoning
As you can see, people made extensive use of genus Salvia‘s antimicrobial, aromatic, and analgesic properties as well as using it for unspecified “strengthening” and tonic purposes. They also regarded it as purifying and apotropaic (warding off evil). It’s very appropriate that one of the most common genera to be found in Inland Southern California was useful for the most common health problems that people would face–colds and flu, infections, and assorted pains.
So far so normal for members of the mint family. But I find it interesting that the uses of sagebrush (Artemisia douglasiana and A. californica) overlap significantly, although it belongs to the family Asteraceae (the daisies). What Artemisia has in common with Salvia is that both are intensely aromatic. (The Spanish settlers of California called it romerillo, “little rosemary” [source]. Artemisia is also the genus mugwort belongs to.)
- treating respiratory problems (asthma, colds, coughs)
- treating pain (rheumatism, arthritis, earache, headache, stomachache, cramps, fractures, back pain, difficult childbirth, toothache)
- treating other illnesses (diarrhea, dysentery)
- treating wounds, bruises, skin irritation (diaper rash, itching sores), and for post-partum healing
- treating urinary problems
- treating menstrual problems and menopausal symptoms
- cleansing the body and hair
- repelling insects
- for smoking with or instead of tobacco
- clearing the head during mourning, girls’ puberty rites, dispelling ghosts, preventing one from dreaming of the dead, preventing personal injury, ceremonial fires before hunting (sometimes with white sage), unspecified “ceremonial” purposes
So to recap, I’m certainly not saying that Inland Southern California has a monopoly on aromatic plants with cleansing, disinfecting properties. Salvia and Artemisia species exist in many parts of the world and tend to have similar medicinal potencies, and are used in similar ways. But Southern California shares with the Mediterranean a relatively arid climate and a great profusion of aromatic and resinous plants. So, speaking impressionistically and as a botanical novice, it seems to me that the climatic dryness and pungency of the herbs (and subsequently the pungency of honey made from those herbs) are related. Perhaps it has something to do with concentrating and maintaining resources? I don’t know. Just some thoughts.