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by Susan Wittig Albert
June 4, 2000

What native herb played an important role in U.S. political history? Which herb bears the name of a Native American tribe? Which is pretty in the garden, spicy on the table, and useful in the medicine chest?

If you’ve unraveled all three of these clues, you’ve discovered that the mystery herb is bee balm, or Monarda, a North American native that also goes by the names Oswego tea (after the Indians who used it extensively), bergamot (because it smells a little like the bergamot orange that flavors Earl Grey tea), and horsemint (it does belong to the mint family, but the reason for -horse- is lost in the mists of folklore). The name bee balm derives from one of the plant’s medicinal uses: a poltice of the flowers is said to ease the pain of a bee sting. And Monarda was the name of the 16th-century Spanish botonist (Dr. Nicolas Monardes) who compiled an herbal with the delightful title of Joyful Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde.

The Oswego Indians taught English colonists how to brew a tea of Monarda to treat colds, coughs, and bronchitis; nausea, flatulence, colic, and menstrual cramps; and heart trouble. The Tewa Indians flavored meat with the leaves and rubbed dried leaves on the forehead to cure headaches. The Winnebagos applied a poltice of boiled leaves to pimples and other skin eruptions. While no scientific studies have been done to confirm the herb’s effectiveness, its chemical constituents suggest that the Indians were on to a good thing.

Monarda played an interesting role in U.S. history. After the Boston Tea Party, the leaves of M. didyma were used as a tea substitute. During the tea boycott, drinking Oswego tea was a symbol of a patriot’s belief in democratic government. Growing it in the garden was like flying a flag.

Monarda comes in many varieties and colors. If you like scarlet, try M. didyma, ‘Cambridge Scarlet,’ a beautiful bloomer that will thrive in a sunny spot with rich, moist soil. ‘Alba’ is a white variety; ‘Violet Queen’ will please you in purple. Also purple are the marvelous tiered whorls of M. fistulosa, or wild bergamot (horsemint), which grows wild in the meadows around my Texas home. M. citriodora has a strong lemony taste and lavender flowers. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love all the Monardas, which grow two-five feet high and are hardy to -20° F. Start it from seed or purchase nursery plants.

With its citrusy, minty, sweet-hot flavor, Monarda is also a taste treat. Add ½ cup fresh or dried blossoms/leaves to 8 cups boiling water; use alone or mix with tea, lemonade, or punch. Use the leaves to flavor meat and fish, or candy them. Enjoy Monarda-in all its different uses!

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at

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