Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Refreshing Oswego Tea

The New World was a treasure-trove of plants to early European explorers. Many of their uses came to light as the colonizing foreigners observed the native people. Just so did the value of Oswego Tea come to be known.

Oswego Tea, also known as Bee Balm, Horsemint and Bergamot is of the genus Monarda, containing about 16 indigenous species. Monarda is named for Nicolas Monardes, 16th century Spanish physician and botanist. In those days, most physicians were botanists. Monardes wrote his famous Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales. Of course, he referred to "our West Indian" possessions because most of the territory was under the Spanish flag. In 1577, John Frampton (Englishman) translated Monardes book and titled it, Ioyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde, typically disregarding Spanish claims.

Monarda belongs to the Mint family, Lamiaceae. It's easy to recognize Monarda's relationship to mints. Stems are squared. Leaves are slender, tapered and toothed. The flowers are quite large compared to mints, usually red to pink in color, and are produced repeatedly throughout the growing season. The fragrance is very pleasing. I enjoy crushing the leaves between my fingers for a refreshing sniff.

One of the most useful species, and the one I'll treat for the rest of this article, is M. didyma (pronounced DID-ee-muh). It is sometimes called Scarlet Beebalm. You can find it growing wild, especially in the Appalacians where rich, moist, well-drained soils are very much to its liking.

Scarlet Beebalm is known for its antiseptic properties. Of course, the Indians knew it first. They used it as a poultice, and as a refreshing tea for fighting tooth decay, gum disease, and bad breath. An active ingredient, Thymol, is still used in mouthwashes.

It attracts bees, so is a useful honey plant. Butterflies love it, too.

But most of us love Scarlet Beebalm because it is so beautiful. Monarda grows up to 48", sometimes taller, so the lovely flowers may tower above other perennials. It spreads by runners to about 12" across, so if your garden site is to its liking, you may have a colony in a couple of growing seasons.

Monarda is suitable in perennial gardens and borders, herb gardens, butterfly and bee gardens, and wildflower gardens. New cultivars and hybrids are available in differing heights and in colors ranging from white, to pink, purplish and scarlet.

Monarda thrives in full sun in USDA climate zones 3 or 4 to 9 in fertile, well-drained, evenly moist soils with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8. It can be grown in partial shade, but tends to be leggy and flower less.

Begin by taking a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office for testing. The results will specify any soil amendments needed.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep. Add enough soil to raise the bed at least 4" above the surrounding ground level. This will help to promote good drainage. Compost may be incorporated into the soil. Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants 12" to 24" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Water the plants in the pots, then drain. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Monarda has no serious pests or diseases, and deer and rabbits don't like it. Powdery mildew may appear, but is usually not serious enough to ruin your plants. The greatest cause of failure is planting it in an environment that is not to its liking.

When your Beebalm is in bloom, pick a few leaves for tea, then sit in the shade, and enjoy its beauty. It's as refreshing to the palate as it is to the eye.

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