Darcey is hosting this month’s herbal blog party. She asked us to write about the plant that first inspired us.
Well. I’ve been playing with plants since before I could talk, and there were so many that I loved when I was little. Plantain, ground ivy and all-heal in the yard; chives, thyme and lemon balm in my mother’s wagon-wheel herb garden; mayweed and blackberry by the barn; yarrow and milkweed in the hayfield; crabapple and hawthorn in the thicket; spearmint in the creek and coltsfoot on the bank; ramps and mountain mint up in the woods. So many. But I think the plant that made the strongest impression on me in the first year or two of my life was bee balm.
Our farm was back up against a mountain at the sinks of a decent-sized creek. There was a relatively active beaver meadow about halfway down the valley, and in the summer it was covered with bee balm. All kinds of bee balmâ€”light purple, dark purple, red, pink, white. Little sprouts of color in the tall grass. A treasure hunt.
And the smell. If you haven’t smelled bee balm, go smell some as soon as you can. Taste it while you’re at it. Make some tea. It’s calming and comforting and enlivening. We drank it all winter when I was smallâ€”sometimes mixed with lemon balm, sometimes on its own.
Some of my earliest, happiest memories are of picking bee balm with my mother. She loves the plant as much as I do, and always has a jar of the dried herb in her cupboard for tea. I think if our family has a plant emblem, it’s definitely bee balm. Perfect, considering we have a family tendency to just the kind of nervous irritation and dis-embodiment that bee balm’s best at soothing.
A rambling note about what to call this plant:
When I was growing up, we used the name “bee balm” to refer to several species in the genus Monarda (M. didyma, M. fistulosa and M. media). In books you sometimes see them called wild bergamot or Oswego tea. Many herbalists just say “Monarda,” and one (the great Matthew Wood) made up his own name for M. fistulosa: sweet leaf. But I still like “bee balm” best. The other names ring hollow to me.
Europeans called it wild bergamot because M. didyma smells like old-world bergamot (Citrus bergamia). But I think the plant deserves its own name. It was called Oswego tea because the Oswego nation used it for tea. That’s better, but just about all the Eastern nations used it for tea. It doesn’t say much about the plant. The genus Monarda is named for Nicolas Monardes, the Spanish scientist who first described the plant to Europeans. Fine, but the plant was around long before he described it. Matt Wood tried to remedy the situation by calling it “sweet leaf,” but the thing is, I don’t find it sweet. As Henriette says, it’s “hot as a very hot thing.” To my ears, “bee balm” is the only name that actually describes the plant. It’s a soothing plant (balm) that attracts bees. Yes. Simple.
PS: That’s me in the picture when I was about two.