BEE BALM / OSWEGO TEA (Monarda Didyma), also known as Scarlet Bee Balm, is an ancient American native plant. The genus name is after Nicholas Monardes, a Spanish physician who wrote in the 16th Century about New World medicinal plants. The common name was bestowed upon by John Bartram (1699-1777), a Quaker farmer known as the "Father of American Botany", who observed Oswego Indians using it for tea. It was used as a substitute for black tea during the American Revolution. It is less medicinal in taste that its cousin Monarda Citriodora. Like all mints it has a square-shaped stem. The large shaggy brilliant red flowers grow 30-36" high and are aromatic and edible. An important bee forage plant it is also very attractive to hummingbirds. Here in North Carolina it fills out beautifully from early spring and then blooms in June and, if you deadhead, again in August. Nice cut flower. Wonderful tea and potpourri! Perennial. LIMITED SUPPLY. 50 seeds.
MEDICINAL: Native Americans used this plant to cure flatulence and insomnia. The Blackfeet used poultices of this plant for skin infections and minor wounds. It is also used for mouth and throat infections since it is a natural source of the antiseptic Thymol, used in modern mouthwashes.
GROWING TIPS: Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks. A light dependent germinator, so plant at surface, pressing gently so it has contact with soil and keep moist but not wet. Seeds germinate in 10-20 days. Be sure to harden off before planting outside in partial shade position and average soil when light frost is still possible. The first year I put out it was overrun by another larger group of marigolds and I gave it up for gone since it did not flower. But this year was nothing short of spectacular! Once established will self-seed and also spreads by runners so you can share that way as well.
SEED SAVING: This is not the easiest to collect seeds from, as birds may beat you to it and the seeds are not readily apparent. The seeds mature 1-3 weeks after flowering. You will note the mature flowers begin to wane. Bend the stem over a bowl gently, so you do not snap it and tap the base of the flower. If the light brown seeds fall out you are in luck! If you miss them, there's always next year, as this wonderful flower WILL be back! An alternate method, and one which may yield additional flowers, is to cut the spent flower heads back to a leaf union and carefully place the head on paper for drying. If you do this properly, there will sprout new stems with flowers at the union. Once your flower heads are dried, gently crush and shake over white paper plate until the seeds are ejected. Now, this is important, you will see many many more little black square irregular grains - they look a bit like pepper. These are NOT seeds. But there are lots of them and you need to carefully search for the few seeds which are roundish, smooth and light brown.
DRYING FOR TEA AND OTHER USES: When we gather herbs for fresh use, we pick early in the morning, when still kissed by dew. But when we gather herbs for drying, we are going to wait until the sun has dried the dew, so that we do not get mildew forming when we dry. Gather small bunches of the healthiest plants and tie at the ends with string with a tail. Then hang in a protected environment. For me, it is from the shutters of my interior kitchen window over my sink. No sunlight at this window but plenty of fresh air as an overhead fan circulates during warmer months. This is ideal. Otherwise, special drying racks work well. The idea is to dry quickly, without sunlight, but plenty of air circulation to keep mildew from forming. Turn if necessary to make sure the bunch dries completely. When dry, crumple the leaves from the stems and store in airtight canisters.