Tea in the Tallgrass

It’s been a wet year so far on the Illinois prairie, and at least one tallgrass plant seems to be enjoying the drippy conditions. Wild bergamot. Or, as many of us call it, “bee balm.”

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It’s this perennial’s pretty lavender blooms, shading to pink or white, that add a little pastel color to prairies in Illinois, July through September. Butterflies, hummingbirds, sphinx moths and —- you guessed it — bees —find bee balm irresistible.

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And oh! The delicious smell of the leaves. Crush one between your fingertips and mmmmmmmm. Minty? Maybe oregano-ish? Or thyme? I’ve heard all of these scents from sniffing prairie visitors and natural history students. Bee balm is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has the square stem to prove it. Many people think the smell of wild bergamot is the smell of the tallgrass prairie. I do.

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Tear off a leaf of wild bergamot — Monarda fistulosa — and chew it. Feel your mouth tingle? It’s considered astringent, and the taste can be very strong.

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Native Americans liked to brew a tea or make infusions from the leafy foliage and flower heads as a cure for everything from a fever to a headache.

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Today, you’ll still find people drinking wild bergamot tea as an herbal remedy.  I find it refreshing. A few wild bergamot leaves, some red clover heads for a sweetener, and presto — delicious foraged tea!

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One misconception I had when first was introduced to wild bergamot was that it was an ingredient in Earl Grey tea.  After all, the plant smells like Earl Grey tea, doesn’t it? Further confusion: If you look at the label of Earl Grey or Lady Grey tea you’ll see bergamot listed as an ingredient. But in this case, bergamot refers to a citrus fruit, the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), not our familiar prairie plant. Earl Grey tea contains some of the essence of the bergamot orange’s peel. Our native flower shares that same citrusy-minty fragrance and so is believed to take its common name, wild bergamot, from the orange.

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You’ll find lots of different bee balms in gardens, including a pink variation, like this unknown species given to me by a generous friend.

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Another bee balm you might find in Illinois gardens is Monarda didyma, or the scarlet bee balm. It’s sometimes called by the common name, “Oswego Tea.”

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I grow the native, pink, and scarlet bee balms in my backyard. The hummingbirds seem to prefer the scarlet color of Monarda didyma. 

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But although scarlet bee balm  is native to the Northeastern United States, many naturalists consider it non-native in Illinois and thus, unwelcome on the Illinois tallgrass prairie. It’s also a rapid spreader, and can become invasive. Oops!

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Ah, well. It looks pretty in the garden, doesn’t it?  A little compromise might be in order.

I’ll just keep it out of my prairie patch.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on wild bergamot, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot and false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoide), SP;  silver skipper on wild bergamot, NG; wild bergamot, SP; foraged tea party, TMA;  wild bergamot, SP; pink bee balm (species unknown), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; hummingbird feeder and scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), GE; scarlet bee balm, GE.

Disclaimer: Always ask permission before you gather any wild plants. Before you make bergamot tea or any foraged tea, be sure you have the correct plant and have read about possible interactions and allergies.  Then make your decision about consumption. Web MD is a good source for this: http://www.webmd.com/

Information on wild bergamot and other bee balms was taken from many sources, including the  Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=MOFI and Illinois Wildflowers: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/; and Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman.

6 responses to “Tea in the Tallgrass

  1. Barbara Maxson

    Thanks for the info and the pictures. They are beautiful. I love the prairie at this time of year. It is a 4th celebration. My bee balm is not blooming yet. I dont see any buds.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Barbara — my scarlet bee balm and pink bee balm is in bloom, but the Monarda fistulosa is still about two weeks away (the photos of it are from last season). I agree — the prairie is amazing on the Fourth of July! Can’t wait!

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  3. Brenda Spitzer

    This was very useful information, Cindy! Cute tea pot, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your little tea spread looks tempting! Fascinating info as usual. Perhaps it’s time for some iced bee balm tea…

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  5. I am surrounded by bee balm here at Churchill and forgot it’s name-thank you!!!! Is it wet prairie or dry? Here it is in wet place. Sheryl

    Sent from my iPhone

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    • I think the rain has really helped it run wild this year, Sheryl — I’ve never seen it so abundant!That said, you find it growing in everything from dry prairie to wet to mesic (well-drained, moderate). It’s a beautiful year for it.

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