Monarda – It’s About Time!
Jackie Johnson ND
Editor: The Wisconsin Herbalist
Monarda seems to be getting more attention this year. As a 2013 Notable Native Plant, the Herb Society of America has brought it front and center as valuable North American Native. For those of us who have respected and used it for years, it’s about time. Not only is this a lovely plant, but a versatile one as well.
Which is the lavender one; which is the red one are common questions? The red one, didyma and the lavender one, fistulosa are the most common among the seventeen species, fifty cultivars and countless wild hybrids referred to as Monarda. The colors change slightly from region to region as well. Our fistulosas are definitely lavender. Others seem more pinkish.
You may recognize it by its more common names: Bergamot, Bee Balm¸ Wild Bergamot, Oswego Tea or Wild Oregano.
This North American native is a member of the mint family, so beware, they are known to be non-invasively challenged if conditions are perfect. Those “perfect” conditions, however, are quite common – they prefer sun but semi-shade is ok too. They like nutrient rich well drained soil everyone talks about, but few of us outside of botanical gardens actually have. I can attest to Monarda thriving in compacted clay soil, just by looking outside.
The origin of the name Monarda is interesting. A physician/botanist from Seville Spain, Dr. Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588), who incidentally never set foot in North America, named it after himself. He authored one of the first books on the flora from the “new world”, but only after they were brought across the ocean for him to study in Spain. It is said he thought the crushed leaves smelled much like the citrus fruit Bergamot (as in Earl Grey tea), and thus its most common name.
Monarda fistulosa is native to the Oswego New York area (western NY/Lake Ontario region) but can be found across most of North America (except, I'm told in California, Florida and Alaska). Native M. didyma is more an eastern/central North American plant. If you’re a zone person – think Zones 3 to 9.
Being a mint, it has a square stem and opposite leaves. It can grow as tall as five feet, but most are around two to three feet. The flowers are in bloom from June to September.
Propagation is best by root division in the early spring. Most people who have them are happy to part with a few clumps! Stem cuttings are also possible when the stems are about four to five inches tall. My first clump came from the ditch down the road. I was caught without my usual “truck trowel”, and dug with my fingers and opps, it came out with only a couple small roots. That single plant with barely any roots spread to at least 1,000 plants over the years…..so they are easy starters.
Only the true species will grow from seed. Germination is easy and takes from ten to forty days. When the flowers turn brown, collect them for seed. Seeds should be stratified before planting. Stratification means mimicking the conditions the seed would encounter in nature. In my case, this means a cold moist winter. I usually collect them and store them in the refrigerator over winter – tagged with “MONARDA SEEDS - DO NOT EAT”.
You can test seed viability (of any seed) by placing 10 seeds in a wet paper towel and placing in a plastic baggie (not zipped closed but keeping it moist). Check it every couple of days. If 5 seeds sprout, your viability is 50%, eight means 80%, etc. (Do this after you’ve stratified them.) If none of your Monarda seeds sprout, you may have a sterile hybrid, or bad seed. Doing this can save a lot of disappointment later.
To keep your Monardas healthy, clumps should be divided every three to five years. Left in the wild, they move around by themselves.
Monardas attract bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Due to the tubular structure of the flower, bees sometimes have difficulty, but nature provides, and insects leave tiny holes for this purpose.
The native species are prone to powdery mildew. Harvesting the leaves just before the flowers open is optimal, and younger leaves are more desirable. Older leaves seem to taste more bitter, but drying seems to help with this. The flowers should be harvested in full bloom and before the mildew sets in.
Personally I think the red ones taste better and I use them as both a tea and sprinkle the petals in summer salads. In my experiences, the lavender ones seem to be more medicinally beneficial (but also good in tea and salads).
A Monarda claim to fame was its use as a tea substitute after the Boston Tea Party tea toss! In the language of flowers, it symbolizes compassion and sympathy.
Culinary uses: Leaves in lemonade, jams, jellies, meat flavorings. I love to infuse the leaves and flowers in apple cider or champagne vinegar and use as a marinade for venison.
Historical medicinal uses: Since there are several Monardas throughout North America, tribes incorporated it into daily living in different ways. Some of their uses included: colds, flu, upper respiratory, gas, diarrhea, nausea, fevers, and whooping cough. Plains tribes poulticed boiled leaves for fungal infections. Colds and chills were helped with a warm cup of tea; infusions were used for sore throats and externally as wound washes. The mashed plant was placed on the forehead for headaches. The leaves and flowers were rubbed on the body as an insect repellent; and externally the boiled leaves were used for muscle spasms.
It can be infused in honey for sore throats. A steam was used to clear sinus. It is delicious in oxymels and elixirs.
I work for the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. In our natural food store, Tsyunhehkw (meaning Life Sustenance, and pronounced “chan heck wa”) Monarda is a staple and has been referred to as #6 for as long as I can remember. It is harvested in July, dried and put in the store for use as a tea for upper respiratory problems.
This is one plant you should harvest yourself; very few places offer it for sale.
Other uses: Dried flowers retain their color and can be used in dried arrangements, craft projects, and in potpourri.
Herbal energetics of the plant are stimulating, spicy and diffusive.
Properties that have been associated with Monarda in the past: Stimulant, Digestive, Diaphoretic, Carminative, Diuretic, Expectorant, Anti-microbial, Anti-spasmodic, Emmenagogue, Anti-Fungal
Active Constituents: Thymol – a strong antiseptic found in Thyme and often used in mouthwashes – although much of it is a synthetic now. M. punctata (Horsemint – more common in Eastern United States) is said to have more thymol than thyme.
Research: I located very little current research. One source offered that it may inhibit herpes simplex. Another stated there were 30,000 parts per million of the anti-oxidant that may prevent tooth decay, geraniol – even more than in green tea.
Use for Animals: I’ve used infusions for skin problems on my horses. It also seems to be a fair flea repellent on dogs. And neither the dogs nor the horses seemed to mind me using it on them.
I hope you have wild Monarda living around you. Remember only harvest what you know for certain has not been contaminated with chemicals, and leave enough to enable it to sustain itself and you for the years ahead.
Since it’s a mint, you’ll want to dry it as quickly as possible and store in air tight glass containers. A quick, easy and inexpensive way to dry herbs is to put them loosely in brown paper bags, mark the bag, put it in the backseat of your car and park in the sun. It dries usually in one hot day and your car will smell great!
Have fun with your Monarda this summer!