Facts About Bee Balm

Learn how ordinary bee balm was served as a welcome substitute for tea.


The mature blossom of Monarda "Purple Queen." (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

The mature blossom of Monarda "Purple Queen." (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

By: Maureen Gilmer

It's the last legal high for drinkers of any age. Caffeine, whether it comes from tea, coffee, colas or a host of herbal remedies, is a powerful stimulant. And it is as addictive in the 21st century as it was in the 18th.

This dilemma faced Bostonians in 1775, when they revolted against a sweetheart deal between the East India Company tea trade and the British crown. In protest, patriots chose the high road--they boycotted the tea. They also dressed up like Indians and boarded a company ship, dumping more than 300 pounds of it into Boston harbor. This Tea Party resulted in huge penalties being placed on the offending colonists, which would add fuel to the fire that ignited the American Revolution.

And that, in turn, left thousands of people scrambling for a China tea substitute.



Plant where long, thin stalks won't be disturbed. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Plant where long, thin stalks won't be disturbed. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Thirty years earlier, John Bartram was in upper New York State at Fort Oswego. A devoted botanist, he was known to have contacts with Indians who shared their uses for native plants with him. He learned that they brewed a tea with a certain wildflower's foliage to treat chills and fever. It was a member of the mint family. He named it Oswego tea.

Little did Bartram know that this same plant, Monarda didyma, would replace the Chinese tea as the colonies' household drink. While it offered no caffeine, the tea proved to be a good a balm for sore throats and headaches. Oil within the leaves was used to treat insect bites and relieve bronchial congestion. Most important, it made a tasty tea.

No wonder red-flowering Monarda didyma--also called bee balm--popped up in practically every New England dooryard. The plants were found in the wild, dug up and replanted, with each homestead sharing with other tea-starved colonists. Over time, the natural range of the plant increased considerably.

These perennials were often joined by their close cousin, Monarda fistulosa, known as wild bergamont. Bergamont leaves are said to share an aroma of citrus and mint, likened to that of bergamont oranges; hence the name.

These species are great perennials that straddle the line between flower gardens and herb beds. Reaching upwards of two feet in bloom, they are big and bold in landscapes. Plants naturalize in most eastern states. They do surprisingly well in the west if given water in the dry season.

Using Monarda foliage in the kitchen is an age-old art. Leaves may be dried and stored for later use as tea. Add a fresh leaf to fruit salads and iced tea or other drinks. Its most traditional value is in jellies for meat dishes such as lamb or, its most common use, in apple jelly.

Bee balm is easy to grow. A great deal of crossing between the red and purple flowering species has resulted in named cultivars. These are less inclined to develop mildewed foliage in areas of summer humidity. Varieties such as 'Jacob Cline', 'Raspberry Wine' 'Blue Stocking' and 'Marshal's Delight' are an improvement over the species.

Monarda is vulnerable to poorly drained soils and a saturated root zone. Avoid them if you are allergic to bees. Their common name, bee balm, attests to their legendary ability to attract all sorts of bees from very small to large black bumbles.



White powdery mildew spots these Monarda leaves. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

White powdery mildew spots these Monarda leaves. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Avoid planting in high-traffic areas because tall bloom stalks are brittle and can break off under the least pressure. For these reasons they are often confined to the back of the border.

There is no question that after the Boston Tea Party there was an epidemic of caffeine withdrawal headaches. Perhaps the Indian's use of Oswego tea to treat headache sped Monarda into early American gardens, to treat the inevitable hangovers to come.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network.

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