Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Usually in this column we talk about edible garden plants or ornamental garden plants. Beyond those two major groups lies another category of plant that everyone should consider devoting a corner of their garden to. These are the plants that will allow you to drink your garden. And no, I’m not talking about growing hops for beer, grapes for wine or apples for cider (although these are all great ideas!). The plants that I’d like you to think a little bit about are the tea plants. And when I say tea, I mean mostly herbal teas but you can also grow your own regular tea plants as well. Over the next little bit we’ll take a look at some of the really interesting herbal tea plants that you can grow right here in the north along with their possible uses.

The first plant that we can look at for its herbal tea properties is lemon bee balm (Monarda citriodora). Also known as purple horsemint or lemon mint, lemon bee balm is an annual member of the primarily perennial Monarda family, and is native across much of the southern and central United States and Mexico. Lemon bee balm grows to a bout a meter in height and is topped off by spectacular pink and purple flowers that defy description. It’s worth taking the time to Google an image of lemon bee balm just to see what you’re missing. And once you see it, you’ll want it in next year’s garden without a doubt. Lemon bee balm is not only attractive to gardeners but bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and all sorts of other tiny pollinators also find its allure irresistible. Seeds for lemon bee balm are easy to find and even easier to start. I simply press them into the surface of some damp sterile seed starting mix and then place them on a plant heating mat under a humidity dome. The seeds will germinate within days and can be quickly moved under a bright light. Once the seedlings have a couple sets of true leaves they can be potted up in individual two or three-inch flower pots. Water them as need to keep the soil moist but not wet. You can give them occasional very light feedings but try not to go too heavy on the nitrogen. Grow them like this until all danger of frost has passed. Harden them off for a few days and then plant them in an area where they will receive maximum sunshine (although they can tolerate some shade). Lemon bee balm can survive, and even thrive, in dry soils but maintaining a regular watering schedule will help promote flowering later into the fall than is normal for these plants. While most gardeners grow lemon bee balm for either its ornamental qualities or its wildlife-friendly qualities, others use it as part of a drying flower garden. By far the most common reason for growing lemon bee balm is for it’s herbal tea/medicinal qualities. Historically, lemon bee balm was most widely found growing in the American Plains region. Here the plants were gathered by the indigenous people and used both as a seasoning for meat and for a medicinal tea.

As I type this article I am actually enjoying a cup of lemon bee balm tea brewed from some freshly harvested flowers and leaves. Many people claim that lemon bee balm smells predominantly of lemons. Since it does contain a fairly high level of mosquito repelling citronella oil, it’s only natural to assume that lemon would be the dominant aroma and flavour. In fact, its species name, citriodora, literally mans “lemon scented.” I have to admit that I really don’t detect a great amount of lemon essence to this plant. Instead I would define the flavour and smell as more of a citrusy oregano. The tea has a distinctive oregano bite to it that while initially a little off-putting, soon becomes quite soothing. Just a touch of honey (local of course) to dull the oregano-like bite and this herbal tea is quite capable of standing on its own as a late evening drink. Over the years lemon bee balm has been infused as a tea and used for numerous medicinal functions. It was thought that any problems related to the respiratory tract could be treated through the consumption of lemon bee balm tea. Coughs, sore throats, fevers and general respiratory infections were all treated with this easy to brew tea.

Other common uses for lemon bee balm include salad greens as well as flavourings for various meat, seafood and poultry dishes. I’ve also read that lemon bee balm is an ingredient in some liquers and wines although I’ve yet to actually come across any. However you look at it, lemon bee balm is one of those little known annual flowers that is greatly underutilized in modern gardens. First and foremost,, though, it should be grown and used as an herbal tea plant. One of the best sources of seed that I’ve found for this plant is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. So go ahead and try something new next year. There simply are no negatives to this plant. I’ll bring the hot water.