Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bee Balm 101

It's time for another installation of our Herb 101 series.  This time, we're focusing on one that seems to be overlooked a lot by most gardeners, Bee Balm.

A little history of this delicious and versatile herb takes us back to the time of the American Revolutionary War. Bee Balm is a native American plant that grows throughout the eastern half of the United States. The Oswego Indians, who lived in western New York, used the leaves of the Bee Balm plant to prepare a "tea." They shared this tea (which came to be known as Oswego Tea) with the colonial settlers, who used it as a replacement for the imported tea after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Bee Balm is also referred to by a few different names, such as Bergamot or Horsemint, and comes in 4 known varieties identified by the color of their flowers. The variety specifically used for Oswego tea develops flowers which are red, almost scarlet, in color, with leaves that taste of orange and lemon, giving it a citrus flavor.

The leaves can be used whole or chopped and add a nice flavor to meats, and also compliment many fresh fruits.  The flowers, though best used for making tea, can make an attractive and edible garnish for your serving platter. I would recommend that you use the leaves dried for your cooking, because the fresh leaves tend to be very strong in flavor.  Young tender leaves can be added with the flowers in making your tea, if you so desire. I have listed two tea recipes below. One is for Oswego tea, and the other is for "Mock" Earl Grey tea.

Bee Balm is well known for attracting bees and butterflies, making it beneficial to grow near your vegetable garden, perennial flower bed or in a border area, to aid in pollination.  If you want to grow Bee Balm but have limited space, this plant also does very well in pots.  Take note that it is a member of the Mint family, so it can be very invasive if allowed to grow unchecked.

It's best to plant your Bee Balm either in the Spring or early Fall.  I have had good success starting this herb from both seeds and cuttings.  Bee Balm grows best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade well. It likes moist, well-drained soil that has a lot of organic matter in it.  A good practice is to dress your Bee Balm plants each spring with a thin layer of compost.  Then, mulch around the plant a layer of about 2 inches to help retain moisture and control weeds. The plants generally reach 2 to 4 feet in height. 

To overwinter your Bee Balm plant, after the first killing frost, cut the plant back to about an inch from the ground, and then mulch it with a straw blanket for the winter.  If you have a potted Bee Balm plant, either bring the plant indoors or plant the pot to overwinter it.

Since I am not an Herbologist, or herbal medicine practitioner, I am not going to address the medical properties of Bee Balm. I will only say that it is reported to aid with sore throats, insomnia, headaches, and menstrual pains, however any of the varieties of Bee Balm can be dangerous to pregnant women in that it stimulates contractions.

Oswego Tea Recipe

Use one tablespoon of fresh leaves and flower petals, or one teaspoon of dried leaves and petals.

Steep in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes.

Sweeten to taste.

"Mock" Earl Grey Tea

Prepare a good black tea, then steep 2 tablespoons of dried Bee Balm flower petals in the tea for about 5 minutes. Do not boil the petals while making this tea. Boiling the petals will affect the oils that cause the "Earl Grey" flavor.

For more extensive information about Bee Balm and other herbs, I recommend either of the following resources:

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