Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 17: Beebalms

This a true American original!  The entire genus of Monarda is endemic to North America and has many different names ranging from:  Oswego Tea (a partially native name), horsemint, bergamot, and bee balm.  There are at 16 distinct species occurring in the wild, with more being hybridized by growers.  Thought the flowers come in a variety of different colors, they plants all have two things in common:  1.  shape of their leaves, which are lance like and 2) the shape of their flowers, which are petaled with long tube like affairs, either in clusters or in stem petals.  If the flowers look like large, over-blown asters, that is because they are distant cousins of true asters.  The genus, like so many in the New World is named for an European, Nicolás Monarda, a Spanish physician and botanist who was born in 1493, just one year after Columbus' fate full voyage that found him lost in the Caribbean.

Oswego Tea or Bergamot Monarda, one of the showiest of the monardas!
As the name suggests (and the photo from Wikipedia at the top shows) it is an important plant for bees and vice versa, as it needs insects to reproduce.  In addition, they are very important the native hummingbirds; in fact, they are almost tailor made for hummingbirds bill they go together.  Humans use them as an herb in both sweet and savory dishes, and their flavor varies from species to species, but most have a mint like flavor, which gives them their other names:  Native Mint and Wild Mints.  Late food writer/activist Paula Giese wrote a great deal about the traditional uses of at least two species of monarda amongst her people the Anishinabeg (Ojibwe) and Native food historian E. Barrie Kavasch, who is also a leading authority on Native American wild edibles, has written about their widespread use in the desert southwest.

Wasp on a wild blooming monarda

In addition to them growing in the wild, they are extremely popular garden flowers due to both their showy blooms and their usefulness in attracting helpful insects.  The prefer full sun and can be easily rooted by simply cutting off stem with leaves and placing them in a cup of water.  They are extremely beautiful in any flower garden (and some are even perennial, so they come back after winter), but they are most welcome in the home herbal garden!  The culinary used ranges from herbal teas, to seasonings for vegetables; they flavor both light soups and hearty meat stews.  Amongst the Ojibwe, it was a favored herb for cooking with fish.  All parts of the plant have medicinal use, from topical to internal.

Lemon Beebalm (Monarda citriodora)

Oswego Tea, Bergamot (M. didyma)

Wild Bergamot, Mint Leaf, Bee Balm (M. fistulosa)

Wild Oregano, Wild Mint, Mint Beebalm (M. Menthaefolia) a very important plant in the cooking of the Southwest. Photo from Plants Of The Southwest

Plains Beebalm (M. Pectinata)

Spotted Bee Balm or Horsemint (M. puntata), one of the monardas widley used in Mexico as both an herb and a medicine.

Purple Bergamot, Purple Bee Balm (M. media), I used to grow this in my herb garden before I moved, hope to again!  It's a real garden beauty.

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