This past spring, I completed my third year as chairman of National Herb Week. One of my duties has been to participate in choosing each year’s official herb. For a plant to be in the running, it had to (1) be widely adaptable to growing conditions throughout most of the United States, (2) have uses in at least two categories: landscaping, culinary, medicinal, wildlife/butterfly attractor, or craft, and (3) be moderately well known to the gardening public but have potential for increasing awareness of its usefulness. Each year, our committee has chosen a species or even a genus of herbs rather than a particular cultivar.
I’ll admit that I used influence in establishing monarda (Monarda spp.) as the official herb for 1996. Other members had lobbied for scented geraniums or a favorite variety of basil, lavender, or rosemary, but in the end, when the vote was close, I used my tie-breaking powers as chairman to throw my support to the monardas.
Some years back, I began collecting various species and cultivars of monardas. (Several species are known as bee balm because bees are attracted to their flowers and perhaps also from their folk use in soothing beestings; one, M. didyma, is also called Oswego tea from the Indian territory where it grew wild.) Although I planted all of my monardas in a single bed, I took advantage of its several mini-climates, reserving the drier, rocky edges of the bed for our native 3-foot-tall, lavender-flowered M. fistulosa; some lower, moister spots in the center of the bed for the deep maroon and purple cultivars of M. didyma; and the shade of a rugosa rose for some varieties from the mountains of Mexico. To prepare the soil, I tilled the bed and dug in compost and some fluffy decomposed straw. After planting my monardas, I mulched them heavily with straw to keep the roots cool and moist, a step that gardeners in more northern states probably could skip.
My monarda bed provides a place to enjoy the flowers as they come into bloom. Overhead, a bluebird house is occupied throughout the summer by busy bluebird families. An old rugosa rose bush and the lattice of the potting shed serve as a backdrop to monarda blossoms, highlighting them and inviting questions from visitors to the garden. Even my goats are drawn to the spot: they stand on tiptoe as they try to reach up and over the garden fence for bites of the aromatic foliage. In June and July, bees and butterflies are constantly landing and taking off from the red, white, scarlet, maroon, and lavender blossoms, seeming to regulate their comings and goings without the help of an air traffic controller.
Because of monarda’s designation as the official herb of this year’s National Herb Week, I’ve gained additional information about this interesting group of plants. For example, I learned from a lifelong student of Cherokee medicine that the Cherokee formerly recognized three forms of M. fistulosa, each with a distinctive flavor. He described the three flavors as sweet, fruity or berrylike, and hot or peppery, all with the underlying characteristic monarda flavor. I’ve tasted the flowers and leaves of this species in many states and noticed differences in flavor but always attributed them to differences in season or growing conditions. Now I find that Native Americans not only knew the different flavors of M. fistulosa, but used each form for a different medical treatment.
This past winter with its record-breaking -10°F was a good opportunity to test the hardiness of some of the newly introduced, still unnamed, monardas from Mexico. Some of them came through undamaged, and a few survived well beyond their expected winterhardiness. With this kind of track record, I expect that these varieties will become more widely available to gardeners within a few years.
Developing recipes for monarda was an enjoyable side benefit of this year’s committee work. People contributed their favorite recipes for everything from meat dishes to salads, teas, desserts, and fruit punch. I hauled out one of my own recipes for Monarda Sorbet:
Pick the tubular corollas from five or six monarda flower heads, any variety. In a blender, combine them with 4 cups of red grape juice and 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Blend for a few seconds, then refrigerate for a couple of hours to allow the flavors to mellow. Strain the mixture and freeze the liquid in a small electric or hand-cranked ice-cream freezer. Serve with a fresh monarda flower head on the side.
The official herb for 1997 will be thyme (Thymus spp.), which should allow many opportunities to educate people about that versatile genus.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.