Oswego Tea, Bee Balm – Flowers

Indian’s Plume; Fragrant Balm; Mountain Mint

(Monarda didyma) Mint family

Flowers—Scarlet, clustered in a solitary, terminal, rounded head of dark-red calices, with leafy bracts below it. Calyx narrow, tubular, sharply 5-toothed ; corolla tubular, widest at the mouth, 2-lipped, 1 1/2 to 2 inches long ; 2 long, anther-bearing stamens ascending, protruding; 1 pistil; the style 2-cleft. Stem: 2 to 3 ft. tall. Leaves: Aromatic, opposite, dark green, oval to oblong lance-shaped, sharply saw-edged, often hairy beneath, petioled ; upper leaves and bracts often red.

Preferred Habitat—Moist soil, especially near streams, in hilly or mountainous regions.

Flowering Season—July—September.

Distribution—Canada to Georgia, west to Michigan.

Gorgeous, glowing scarlet heads of bee balm arrest the dullest eye, bracts and upper leaves often taking on blood-red color, too, as if it had dripped from the lacerated flowers. Where their vivid doubles are reflected in a shadowy mountain stream, not even the cardinal flower is more strikingly beautiful. Thrifty clumps transplanted from Nature’s garden will spread about ours and add a splendor like the flowers of salvia, next of kin, if only the roots get a frequent soaking.

With even longer flower tubes than the wild bergamot’s, the bee balm belies its name, for, however frequently bees may come about for nectar when it rises high, only long-tongued bumblebees could get enough to compensate for their trouble. Butterflies, which suck with their wings in motion, plumb the depths. The ruby-throated humming bird—to which the Brazilian salvia of our gardens has adapted itself—flashes about these whorls of Indian plumes just as frequently—of course transferring pollen on his needle-like bill as he darts from flower to flower. Even the protruding stamens and pistil take on the prevailing hue. Most of the small, blue or purple flowered members of the mint family cater to bees by wearing their favorite color ; the bergamot charms butterflies with magenta, and tubes so deep the short-tongued mob cannot pilfer their sweets ; and from the frequency of the humming bird’s visits, from the greater depth of the bee balm’s tubes and their brilliant, flaring red—an irresistibly attractive color to the ruby-throat—it would appear that this is a bird flower. Certainly its adaptation is quite as perfect as the salvia’s. Mischievous bees and wasps steal nectar they cannot reach legitimately through bungholes of their own making in the bottom of the slender casks.

“This species,” says Mr. Ellwanger, “is said to give a decoction but little inferior to the true tea, and was largely used as a substitute” by the Indians and the colonists, who learned from them how to brew it.