Tea was once commonly shipped in pressed bricks.
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Last year, I taught my kids about the ships, the costumes, and the tea involved in the Boston Tea Party, but I missed part of the significance of that December night in 1773. The Chinese tea that colonists were drinking — and throwing overboard — was part of a dependence on nonnative plants that connected colonists to their European homes.
After traveling thousands of miles from the only home they’d ever known, it isn’t surprising that most colonists longed for familiarity. Colonists missed indigo, which made a distinctive blue dye and had been easier to obtain in Europe. While families brought vegetable seeds with them, many of the plant products the colonists associated with home were either imported to Europe from other colonies or grown from plants that couldn’t survive in their new environment. Tea, like indigo, was one of these plants.
Any new immigrant will tell you that food is one of the elements that most soothes homesickness. When England threatened the colonists’ ability to afford a taste of home, it must’ve felt like much more than a simple loss of luxury. If the British had truly wanted to keep their transplanted colonials in the fold, they should never have severed an important lifeline that anchored these people to their past. Of course, we know that tariffs threatening the affordability of Chinese tea were the final straw for many, leading agitators, such as Samuel Adams, to call for boycotts and revolution.
Teas and Tisanes
In the late 18th century, herbs were commonly made into medicinal teas, while black tea made from Camellia sinensis leaves was an enjoyable beverage. The colonists’ notion of rebellion, coupled with their tea-drinking habits, required innovation to find a similar recreational drink. In addition to the cultivated herbs they’d brought across the sea, they began to look beyond the garden and into the wilderness. Remarkably, rather than asking native people for tips on healing plants, the colonists formed a relationship with their new surroundings based on the flavors of the native plants.
The Boston Tea Party was one of the most well known turning points leading to the American Revolutionary War.
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A “tisane” is defined as any tea that doesn’t contain C. sinensis, the plant that brings us black, green, and white teas. Today, beginning herbalists are taught that tisanes can be made either for simple pleasure or for medicinal benefit. The Boston Tea Party was an important moment both in American history and in the history of tisanes. Many plants in the colonial landscape began to substitute for suddenly inaccessible Chinese tea. Colonists went in search of plants that would give a satisfying or uplifting experience for this favorite afternoon beverage. They drank these teas in defiance, with a dawning awareness that they could create a new sense of home and become connected to a new place. “Liberty teas” and the plants that made them helped colonists assert that they could be independent, satisfied, and secure in their new home.
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was one of the most popular plants to add to liberty teas. There are several well-known plants in the Monarda genus, all commonly known as “bee balm.” M. didyma is perhaps the most common nowadays, because it’s often grown in gardens and tends to be more commercially available from herbal suppliers. Truthfully, bee balms are somewhat interchangeable in the garden and the kitchen, but there are some notable differences between species. M. didyma is commonly called bee balm, bergamot, or Oswego tea. It originated in the Oswego region of New York and has a citrus-like flavor when the leaves are brewed. It makes a delicious tea and a healthful drink, but wasn’t commonly used by colonists.
Wild Native to Garden Grace
The large 1- to 3-inch-diameter flower is difficult to ignore in these plants. Wild sprays of tubular flowers with elongated stamens spitting from their mouths cluster together at the tops of tall stems. Colonists commonly used M. fistulosa partly because of its distribution. It’s native to all of the continental United States except California and Florida. The plant is hardy in Zones 4 to 9, likes full or partial sun, and isn’t too particular about the soil where it grows. It does tend to like moist soil despite being susceptible to powdery mildew. The fungus is worse in years of heavy rainfall in summer, but entirely protecting plants from infection is difficult. I believe this is why you don’t tend to see it as often from herbal suppliers.
Monarda didyma tends to have brighter, more saturated flower colors than its less-cultivated relatives, including M. fistulosa. Cultivation has also brought powdery mildew resistance to the forefront, as these plants are prone to unsightly, though rarely fatal, fungal infections on their leaves in humid environments.
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Today, M. didyma, which has long been cultivated and encouraged to produce a number of brilliant colors, is a popular garden favorite. M. fistulosa, on the other hand, produces somewhat wild flower clusters that remain a pale, washed-out pink, white, or lavender. These shy colors serve to make the flowers stand out even more in unkempt countryside. The plants bloom in midsummer, and the flowers open beginning in the center of the cluster and moving outward.
Wild bergamot grows between 2-1/2 and 4 feet tall. It rambles untidily, spreading by way of underground rhizomes more than by seeds. It’s easily recognized when out of bloom by its square, hollow stems; these stems bear lanceolate, tooth-edged leaves, which are often a pale green. Though the leaves are hairless, their texture reminds me of suede. Much is made of the flavor of bee balm leaves, which may be confusing at first. Although M. didyma has a citrus flavor that earns it the common name “wild bergamot,” M. fistulosa has an oregano-like flavor.
Monarda fistulosa has pale flowers in loose clusters.
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Once you get a plant started, you should divide it every 2 to 3 years. You can also easily propagate wild bergamot by seed or by stem cuttings in early summer. In addition to tasty teas and beautiful flowers to enjoy, you’ll attract dozens of pollinators, including one of my favorite insects, the hummingbird moth. A number of other insects, such as bumblebees, honeybees, many native bees, hermit sphinx moths, and snout moths, feed on the nectar or foliage of the plant, and you may see ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting the flowers too. Monarda plants don’t seem to have any animal pests; even deer leave them alone.
Though American colonists may have enjoyed bee balms for their flavor in tea, there’s much more to know about these plants’ medicinal and culinary properties. Bee balm flowers make beautiful, edible additions to salads, teas, baked goods, and more. The flowers should be picked just as they open. The entire aboveground portion of wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) is a natural source of thymol. Unsurprisingly, many of the Native Americans from whom colonists learned about this plant used the leaves in baths and steams for catarrh, mucus, and congestion. Thymol is also a strong antiseptic, which makes bee balms popular in topical treatments for sores and wounds, as well as in mouthwashes and drinks to prevent cavities. The volatile oil content of wild bergamot supports its reputation as a sedative for digestive tract maladies, much like other members of the mint family to which it belongs. The anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties of the plant have made it successful in natural treatments for respiratory infections, such as bronchitis, and in acute congestion associated with allergies.
Camellia sinensis leaves dry on large screens. A similar arrangement could be used for bee balm harvest.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Mauro Rodrigues
At some point in its history, M. fistulosa took a back seat to the showier M. didyma. I would bet the change has a lot to do with our ever-changing perception of beauty. A rangy meadow plant that defies control and becomes undesirable in late summer because of fungal infection may take a bit of extra care and planning to grow and use, while M. didyma tends to have a more contained growth habit and is available in mildew-resistant forms. For tea and medicine, take care to pick the leaves just as the flowers come on, and gather the blossoms before they fade. The need for a defiant afternoon tea may have faded when colonists began to own their new identity, but there’s no reason why wild bergamot can’t still be brought into the garden to enjoy on the table, in the teapot, and in the medicine cabinet today.
Minty Monarda Mouthwash Recipe
- 1 cup strong peppermint tea
- 3 teaspoons tincture of wild bergamot
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons raw honey
- 8 to 12 drops peppermint essential oil (optional)
Mix all the ingredients together in a canning jar and set next to your bathroom sink. This will store indefinitely, but will require a bit of a shake before you use it.
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- Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora)
- Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
- New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
- Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
- Betony (Stachys officinalis)
- Combine equal parts of these dried herbs to make as much tea blend as you’d like. Store any unused blend in a glass container away from direct heat or sunlight for up to a year.
- To make tea, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of tea blend to each cup, pour boiling water over top, and steep for 5 minutes. This tea tastes similar to black tea (Camellia sinensis) and therefore quickly became one of the most popular alternative blends for independence-minded colonists.
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Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist and herbalist. She is the formulator at Mockingbird Meadows and chief soda jerk at her family’s unique storefront apothecary, Soda Pharm.