Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Herbal teas have been the drink of choice among many cultures for as long as records have been kept. Virtually every culture around the world has specific herbs or plants that they enjoy mixing with water and consuming as a social beverage or as a medicinal drink. Recently, the popularity of herbal teas amongst gardeners has begun to increase and a growing number of people are including various plants in their yards with the specific intention of using them for teas. Last week in Garden Gossip we took an in depth look at lemon bee balm which is one of those plants. That was just one plant but there are hundreds that area growers could include in their landscapes and use to brew tasty and soothing beverages throughout the year.

The above mentioned lemon bee balm is an annual member of the Monarda genus. There are also several perennial members of this genus that are equally attractive in the garden and tasty in the mug. The Monardas (bergamots, bee balms, horsemints) that are most commonly encountered are Monarda fistulosa and Monarda didyma. Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) is a plant that is native to much of North America and can be commonly encountered from damp woodland settings to open sunny fields. The flowers of wild bergamot tend to be blue to lavender in colour and this plant was widely used by the indigenous people of Canada and the United States for both its medicinal tea properties and its culinary appeal. Wild bergamot was used widely as a flavouring for game meats and especially game birds. Monarda didyma is also a North American native and is so beautiful that it has become a mainstay of gardens around the world. Vivid crimson blooms (sometimes pink or lavender) atop stems nearly a meter in height make clumps of this flower a breathtaking sight. Add to that the profusion of hummingbirds, butterflies and bees (hence the name bee balm) who swarm to this stunning flower and you have another of those plants that “no garden should be without.”

There are dozens of other Monardas found across the continent and really lucky gardeners often come across unusual specimens for sale at markets or nurseries. The Monardas as a group are in the mint family and share the distinctive square stems associated with mint. Like mints, Monardas prefer to grow with damp feet. Providing them with a spot in the garden where they can be moist and receive full sun or semi-shade will help approximate their preferred wild habitat and make for much happier plants. Flower production does seem to be directly affected by the amount of sun the plants receive so not too much shade if you can avoid it. While not as aggressive or invasive as mints, Monardas still spread slowly by the same style of underground stolon. “Borrowing” a start from a willing gardening friend is just as easy as gently digging out one of the side shoots with a few roots attached and transplanting it into an area that can be kept well watered until it begins to grow on its own. Once established, your clump can then be similarly shared with other lucky gardeners. The Monardas can also be grown from seed but take a little longer to establish in this way.

An infusion of Monarda leaves makes a very tasty tea. The early settlers learned to use this plant for tea (reportedly) after the Boston Tea Party made regular black tea inaccessible and referred to it as Oswego tea. Many North American tribes included Monarda in various rituals and ceremonies. Once the plant was introduced to Europe it found its way into teapots there as well. Earl Grey tea is flavoured with leaves from the bergamot orange tree. Monardas were found to taste so similar that the nick name bergamot was then applied to Monarda plants and they were sometimes used as a substitute flavouring when mixed with black tea leaves. A “poor man’s” Earl Grey if you will.

The entire above-ground portion of the Monarda plant is edible. Leaves can be used fresh or dried to make tea. They can also be finely chopped and added to salads as can the tubular red flower petals. To make a “medicinal” tea for use in the winter, collect a quantity of clean young green leaves from your Monarda plant. Spread them out to dry in a cool, dry, airy place. Once they are suitably dried, seal them in a glass jar (plastic retains too many flavours from past occupants) and store in a dark place until needed. You can also include a scattering of the red flower petals in your tea mix. Once you have an urge to try your tea simply place about a teaspoon of dried herb into a cup of freshly boiled water and let sit for five minutes. Sweeten with a touch of honey and enjoy yet another taste of summer that you’ve saved from your garden!