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Wolfgang Von Goethe and Bee Balm

Monarda image

This wooden bench sits under the shade of a sumac, part of a native plant garden bordering the sidewalk at our town’s library. I am sitting here, preparing to follow the instructions of Wolfgang Von Goethe. The auto parts store is next to the library, and as I dither, I begin to recognize a pattern in the cars that park in front of me. Big, late model pickup trucks for the auto parts store, small, older SUVs and sedans for the library. But all this keen observation is simply postponing my assignment, given to us by Dr. Nancy Holmes, poet and professor of English, in a nature writing seminar at the library. She has given us instructions on the five steps of the Goethean Method of nature observation, which has nothing to do with the relation between lifestyle and automobile choice.

The first step is to choose a natural object for observation. I cast my glance around and fix on a group of anonymous tall-stemmed ornamental plants near my bench. They are still in flower but rather scruffy looking, since it is late August. This garden is nothing like wilderness or even nature, but I can conveniently practice the Method on these plants from the comfort of my shady bench. Okay, Goethe says to firmly put aside all foreknowledge—particularly the scientific–of the natural object and just observe it as is, where is, but do so passionately. Which is odd since Goethe was also a scientist. I do that: in this case observational rigor is simple since there isn’t much to see. A group of tall stems with occasional, slightly withered leaves. Round, kind of spiky inflorescences with a few remaining pinkish flowers that a bumblebee visits. Is this one of the 356 native bumblebees of the Okanagan? Firmly, I snap a bracket around that diversionary scientific rabbithole, and proceed. My passionate observation of the plants is going well but something, some vague sense of familiarity, begins hovering out in the suburbs of consciousness. As an ecologist, I am acutely aware of this uncontrollable plant identification motor that runs in my head whenever I am outside, but for the Goethean exercise I have shut it down. As I lean in for a closer observation of the plants, something rips through the thin fabric of bracketed observation: square stems. The stems of these plants are square in cross section. I can’t help it; the autonomous motor re-starts. Square stems equals mint family. I pluck a leaf to sniff it; not quite mint, not quite lemon and pungent, like thyme or oregano. Immediately another motor starts up, that of memory. Of midsummer Saskatchewan prairie grasslands, of redolent pink flowers amongst a sea of native grass. That unique, unmistakable scent. Ignoring Goethe, the plant ID motor fires again: Monarda. Monarda fistulosa. Bee balm, or Wild Bergamot.

What a lovely plant, named in honor of Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish doctor who wrote about herbal medicines brought back from the recently discovered New World. There are some twenty species within the Monarda genus, all of which are North American natives, found pretty much everywhere, but only rarely in British Columbia. Ironically it was the Europeans that made them into popular ornamentals, which this one is. The name Bee Balm comes from the leaf’s reputed ability to soothe bee stings, and the Wild Bergamot name from its scent similarity to the true citrus Bergamot, a component of Earl Grey tea. Monarda flowers with their long funnels and hanging lower lips are hugely popular with insect pollinators, but the leaves not. In fact First Nations used a Monarda leaf concoction to keep their meat from spoiling. Reviewing contemporary wildcrafting literature, Bergamot oil seems to be a cure for pretty much everything from warts to menstrual cramps, making the skeptical reader a bit suspicious. Monarda was traditionally wild-harvested on the Canadian prairies and sold to perfume makers, who used the essential oil as an ingredient in their products. That cottage industry disappeared when chemists were able to synthesize a laboratory replacement for the oil.

Okay, enough of all that. Bracket all that historical, economic and scientific stuff and put it to one side. Stop telling this plant what it is, and give it a chance to explain itself to you; to your rational mind, your senses, and your imagination. Turn off your woo-woo shit detector, trust Goethe, and seek new organs of perception. Definitely a challenge for me, but well worth the effort.