Rooted in History: Bee Balm, an American Native

August 8th, 2016 Rooted in History

Bee BalmA common question from guests in the park while I am out there tending and talking is: are all these plants native? No. Very few are; in fact, there are only two in this garden: Bee Balm (which is intentionally planted) and Mullein (which turns up uninvited, but I find myself its gracious host

The mission of this garden, as mentioned in the previous post, is for it to be relevant to the late 18th century. Many guests are shocked that so few native plants were in regular use by the colonists of this time. Of course our modern understanding of how plants were used by Native
Americans is often quite reverent, and we cannot fathom that this information was not shared, but we forget the relationships between Europeans and the Native American people was tenuous at best and full of disdain.

To further understand why late 18th century gardens were mostly dominated by plants of European descent, it is helpful to put yourself in the metaphorical shoes of, let’s say, a married English mother of two about to leave her home and set off to the New World. Besides various
furnishings and keepsakes, probably the priority items to bring were her plants. These plants were a lifeline in so many ways; not only medicinally and culinary, but often a sentimental reminder of home and those connections left behind.

All of these reasons worked against the inclusion of native plants in the colonial garden. And it makes Bee Balm all the more remarkable and transcendental. Now, let’s discuss what makes Bee Balm so historically noteworthy and a native rarity in the 18th century garden.

Typically a roadside native, this plant never fails to thrill with its fantastical fireworks display. Delightful in smell and taste, this plant played a very interesting role in American history. Along with its many other common names such as Oswega tea and New Jersey tea, it frequently goes
by Bergamot.

The essential ingredient to Earl Grey tea (popular at this time among the upper crust of Britain and the colonists) is the Bergamot orange. But with the jettisoning of imported tea into the Boston Harbor in protest of the imposed Tea Act, a substitute was required for the tea toddling colonist. A native alternative was readily available in the aptly named Bergamot with its flavor and scent profile akin to that of the renowned orange.

We are still grateful that it was discovered that the native plants of this new country had value and purpose. Let us tip our hats and raise our tea cups to this ruby gem as its firework display unravels on the eve of July 4th!

Have question about the garden or colonial horticulture? Just ask Anna: adavis@washingtoncrossingpark.org.