Sunday, July 22, 2007

Monarda - or things that go bump in the night

The plant featured on my calendar this month is Monarda didyma (the tall red flower at the back of the photo.) I’ve never actually grown it myself, but here’s a round-up of what the calendar, the web and my various gardening books have to say about it.

A perennial, monarda didyma grows to about three foot high, so looks best grown in clumps with smaller plants in front to hide the long stems. Leave room for air to circulate, however, as it is prone to attacks of powdery mildew. It prefers light but rich, moist soil and full sun, but will tolerate slight shade. It flowers from June onwards, and deadheading should produce a second flowering later in the year. In autumn, cut the plants back to about six inches in height.

Monarda is invasive, and will need dividing every three years or so in spring or autumn to stop it taking over, as underground runners gradually spread out. Throw away the old central part of the roots and replant the outer portions about a foot apart.

Because of it’s spreading characteristic, it’s a typical “passalong” plant, but if you can’t find anyone to give you some, it can also be grown from seed. For sowing instructions see
here. Other sites say it won’t always bloom the first year, though.

The name Monarda comes from Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish botanist who popularised the herbal use of the plant in Europe. Didyma is a Greek word meaning twin which one web source says refers to the two stamens in each flower, but could also refer to the paired leaves.

Commonly known as Bergamot, Bee Balm, Oswego Tea, Indian Nettle or various other names, Monarda is indigenous to eastern and central regions of North America. There are about 16 Monarda species and colours can range through white to scarlet or purple. Various Monarda species contain the antiseptic thymol, also found in thyme and oregano. Thymol acts as a fungicide and bactericide, and also against some parasites, and the monardas were used by different groups of Native Americans for purposes ranging from alleviating bee stings (hence the name bee balm) to bringing down a high temperature, combating heart disease, insomnia, flatulence, skin disorders and regulating menstrual flow. Non-medicinal purposes included preserving meats. It got the name Oswego tea when the Oswego tribe introduced it to settlers as a substitute for Indian tea after the Boston tea party, when supplies of tea leaves were becoming scarce. To make the tea, steep a teaspoonful of dried leaves and flowers in a cup of boiling water, and leave for ten minutes before draining. It can be sweetened with honey and has a taste reminiscent of that of Earl Grey tea, though apparently leaves harvested before and after the plants flower will have a different taste. The tea can be drunk hot or iced.

The young leaves and flowers can also be eaten in salads, especially with tomatoes, or a couple of leaves can be added to drinks or used to flavour meats such as duck, veal and pork – use it as an alternative to sage in stuffings. Or you can use the leaves in your bath or in pot pourri for their perfume

In the garden, growing monarda is a great way of attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects, and – if you’re lucky enough to have them – hummingbirds. Grown in conjunction with vegetables, it will discourage various soil pests.

Two cautions : firstly thymol taken in large quantities can provoke uterine cramps and is therefore not recommended during pregnancy. And secondly, according to various sources on the web, monarda will develop psychic powers. So if you start to hear things going bump in the night, it could just be due to that soothing cup of Oswego tea you thought was going to cure your insomnia …

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