( Originally Published 1933 )
Oswego Tea, Fragrant Balm, American Melissa
The bee balm is a handsome plant native from Quebec to Michigan, and south to Georgia. It has conspicuous, raggedy, red flower heads, and exceedingly fragrant leaves and flowers. The whole plant except the stems feels soft and woolly.
Root. Each stem has a woody root with many fibers and can easily be pulled apart from the clump.
Stem. The stems are four-angled, and two to three feet or more high.
Leaf. The leaves are of a thin texture, dentate and with red at the margins. They are ovate, come to a gradually diminishing point, and measure about two to four inches long. When fresh the leaves taste bitter; their scent is lemony with a slight peppery tang. Sawyer quite correctly says the leaves smell of bergamot mint, and some species, of salvia.
Flower. The flowers come in July and August. The heads are composed of clusters of flowers and are at the terminations of the stems, and of a few side shoots. The calyx is hairy in the throat and the teeth are narrowly awl-shaped; the corolla is nearly smooth, scarlet red, and one and one-half to two inches long. There are varieties with differently colored flowers:
M. didyma var. rosea has magenta-colored flowers. M. didyma var. violacea has deep scarlet ones. Monarda fistulosa, L., wild bergamot, has grayish lavender flowers.
Monarda fistulosa alba has white flowers.
M. didyma var. Cambridge, is the most popular for gardens, and is scarlet.
Monarda citriodora. The whole plant is tinted reddish in its youth. I received a salmon-pink one from a friend, probably salmonea.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
The plant was named for the Spanish botanist, Monardes, who lived at Seville in the sixteenth century. It was a popular plant in early American gardens. Prince listed Monarda didyma, M. mollis, and M. gracilis; while Bar-tram listed M. didyma, M. fistulosa, M. oblongata, M. chenopodium, and M. punctata.
Medicine. Poucher, in the "Medical Botany of the United States," 1867, said it possesses valuable medicinal properties; the oil of it rubbed on the head was a counter-irritant, and sometimes employed as a liniment; the dried leaves were good for nausea, and vomiting in bilious fevers.
Perfume. The oil from it is said to resemble the odor of ambergris and for a while it was used as a fixative in perfumes.
Food. The dried leaves of Monarda fistulosa make an aromatic tea, while tea of Monarda citriodora has a pleas-ant, peppery taste.
The monardas grow on dry, well-drained soil and thrive in sun or a little shade. They can be raised from divisions of the roots, or from seed. Plants and seeds can be purchased.