Oswego tea is a perennial plant native to North America and having a straight, four-sided, and ridged stems. This plant grows to a maximum height of three feet and bears verdant coarse leaves, while the flowers are large and their color vary from deep pink to purple to red. The flower heads of Monarda didyma are shaggy.
The Oswego Indians of western New York prepared an herbal tea from dried out fragrant Monarda didyma leaves. This was picked up by the early colonial settlers, who used these leaves as a substitute for imported tea, which was in short supply following the Boston Tea Party. The Shakers believed that Oswego tea has the aptitude to treat colds as well as tender throats effectually. On the other hand, some settlers steamed the entire Monarda didyma plant and breathed in the vapour to unblock sinuses.
Monarda fistulosa is another herb that is closed linked to Monarda didyma and often these two species share similar names.
Oswego tea bears vivid red blooms and thrives well when grown in fertile, damp soil, particularly in areas having deciduous forests. Since the fragrance of Oswego tea is comparable to the aroma of bergamot orange, often this plant is also called scarlet bergamot. On the other hand, Monarda fistulosa bears flowers akin to those of lavender and occasionally white-hued blooms and this plant is usually found growing in more arid and sunlit areas. Except these two dissimilarities, the appearance of both these species is very alike. In addition, these two species are also extremely aromatic. While the fragrance of Monarda didyma is like citrus, Monarda fistulosa has a pungent, mint-like aroma. From the days of colonialism to the prevailing times, these two species as well as numerous hybrids have been grown as popular garden flowers, mainly owing to their attractive hues as well as their aptitude to draw butterflies, humming birds and bumblebees.
The genus Monarda has been named to honour Nicholas Monardes, a Spanish physician, who also authored a book containing details of 1569 herbs in the New World. European settlers in North America, who protested the imposition of high taxes on tea from East Indian Company following the Boston Tea Party, consumed Oswego tea made from Monarda didyma leaves and flowers introduced to them by members of the native Oswego tribe. All over the United States, natives used Oswego tea of different species for an assortment of reasons, including in the form of a perfume, as foods and beverages and also to preserve meats. Oswego tea is a very well-liked garden plant that draws butterflies, bumblebees as well as hummingbirds.
In addition, the Native Americans also used Oswego tea and other related herbs for a range of therapeutic purposes, including treating fevers and heart ailments, augmenting flow of urine, stop bleeding and many others. Both, the Native Americans and the European settlers believed that this herb had the aptitude to improve appetite and also regulate menstruation. In the 19th century, people in America traditionally administered Oswego tea to young brides and mothers in the form of a tonic. Even in contemporary times herbalists use Oswego tea to cure vomiting, nausea as well as stomach upsets. Oswego tea encloses a fragrant antiseptic substance called thymol, which is extensively employed by contemporary physicians and dentists. Drinking a fermented solution of Oswego tea helps to cure flatulence as well as insomnia.
Oswego tea also has a number of culinary uses. Sprinkling finely sliced fresh Oswego tea flowers help to make the appearance as well as the taste of salads livelier. You may also use freshly obtained or dried out leaves of Oswego tea in tomato dishes and also in place of sage in filling meats (particularly veal and pork) and poultry.
The fresh as well as dried leaves of Oswego tea can be used to prepare a pleasing and stimulating herbal tea, which would remind one of Earl Grey. To prepare this herbal tea, you need to add one teaspoon (5 ml) of Oswego tea flowers or leaves to one cup (250 ml) of boiling water and allow it to infuse. Strain the liquid and add some honey to make it sweet and tasteful. This drink is considered to be an ideal cooler during summers, provided you serve this tea iced and with a lemon slice.
You may also add fresh leaves as well as the young stems of Oswego tea to drinks made with wine, lemonade, fruit punch, fruit ices as well as jellies to make them more flavourful.
Including fresh or even dried out flowers of Oswego tea in floral arrangements helps to enliven them. You may include multihued, vibrant, aromatic dried Oswego tea flowers in wreaths as well as potpourris made using different herbs.
Habitat and cultivation
Oswego tea is indigenous to the eastern regions of North America and grows naturally in a wide range of environments. In addition, this Monarda species is also grown in various gardens.
This is a perennial plant that flourishes best when grown in fertile, damp, somewhat acidic and excellent organic soils having good drainage. It is advisable that you supply at least 1/2 inch (1 cm) compost to the soil every spring. The suggested pH range for Oswego tea is between 5.5 and 6.5.
Oswego tea has a preference for some shade, but has the aptitude to put up with full sunlight. It is essential to keep the soil damp during arid weather conditions.
It is best to propagate Oswego tea by its seeds sown indoors. Alternately you may sow the seeds outdoors in a cold frame. The sowing should be complete eight weeks prior to the final expected spring frost date in your area. When sowing the seeds indoors ensure that they are placed 1/4 inch (6 mm) inside the soil. If grown outdoors, the seeds need to be sown about 1/2 inch (1 cm) deep into the soil.
The seedlings should be pricked individually and transplanted in your garden about a week following the last spring frost in your locality. It has been found that at times the plants propagated from the seeds do not blossom during their first year growth.
Alternatively, Oswego tea may also be grown by means of dividing established plants during the early part of spring. It is advisable that you make these divisions from the external, more robustly growing areas of the clump and transplant them somewhat deeper compared to the mother plant in the garden.
Oswego tea usually spreads by means of numerous underground stolons (underground shoots) that are produced during every fall. After three to four years’ growth, an Oswego tea clump may spread to over three feet (1 m), since the runners underground extend from the hub and give rise to new stems. In order to restrict the uninhibited growth of Oswego tea, you may plant the species in a pot and thrust it inside the ground - this will prevent the stolons from spreading. Alternatively, you may also confine the plant’s growth using a metal or plastic ‘collar’ that ranges from the surface of the ground to 1 inch (2.5 cm) beneath the soil.
The central or main stems of the plant start losing their vitality after three to four years of growth. In order to restore the beautiful look of the plant, you should unearth the clump at its center and replace it by planting robustly growing divisions from its outside edge. Replant the divisions keeping a space of at least 10 inches (25 cm) between them.
Generally, Oswego tea plants are free from pest invasions. However, at times aphids may cause some problems. Oswego tea is extremely vulnerable to powdery mildew. Keeping the plants in a well ventilated place, however, helps in putting off this problem. Instead of lawn cuttings, you should use pine needles for mulching the plants, because the pine needles permit air circulation even at the level of the ground and also retain moisture. If any plant is affected, trim it to a height of three inches (8 cm) after the flowering season. You should always burn the affected Oswego tea leaves and stems with a view to obliterate the fungus that has managed to survive the pangs of winter.
The shallow roots of Oswego tea need to be protected well by providing sufficient mulch. Provided the soil becomes firm during the winter months, it will destroy the roots. Therefore, ensure that this does not happen.
Side effects and cautions
When consumed in excessive medical dosages, various Monarda species may help to promote menstrual periods as well as cause the uterus to contract. Therefore, pregnant women and those enduring problems related to menstruation should stay away from ingesting large amounts of Oswego tea.
Oswego tea is also referred to as bergamot perhaps owing to having a fragrance similar to that of Citrus bergamia - an Old World plant that yields oil which is used for making Earl Grey tea. In fact, the strong bergamot oil obtained from Citrus bergamia is excellent for aromatherapy. However, this oil may also prove to be somewhat toxic when used internally or externally. Hence, you ought to be careful about distinguishing between the bergamot oil from Citrus bergamia and the edible bergamot oil.
Collection and harvesting
The leaves of Oswego tea may be collected during any time of the day, but it is best to pick them in the morning when the dew has disappeared.
Pick the leaves as well as the flowers of this species during mid-summer and dry them out for storing. Spread the Oswego tea leaves on rack made of wires in a shaded and warm place where air circulation is good. In case you find that the leaves have not dried up even after two to three days, put them on a baking sheet inside a temperate oven, because it is important to dry them fast to help them to hold on to their color and essence. After the leaves have dried up, crush and store them in a sealed jar and keep the container in a place away from light.
The flowers of Oswego tea ought to be collected when they are about fully open. Dangle the flowers in a suitable place to dry them up.
Alternatively, you may also freeze the freshly sliced leaves and whole flowers of Oswego tea for use when necessary.
If you are making a floral arrangement with dried Oswego tea flowers, you should keep no less than 12 inches (30 cm) of the stalk with the flowers.