Every journey up the mountain with Aunt Bett was an adventure. Gathering bee balm was one of the most exciting since we had to battle the hungry bees to get our fair share, not to mention the fact that the uniform for bee battling was never to be forgotten. This is the third in a series of stories about my great Aunt Bett, the mountain medicine woman.
Bee balm grew everywhere along the roads, beside the paths, behind the outhouses, around the chicken house, and even in the corners of the vegetable gardens in the mountains. And we couldn't gather not even one twig of it. Oh, no, we had to go searching far away from humanity to get the very purest bee balm, because Aunt Bett said so. If it grew along the road, it was bound to be covered in coal dust from the many coal trucks that hauled coal from the small mines that dotted the mountainside in the 50's. If it grew beside the paths, too many dirty hands had brushed up against it. And of course we knew better than to pick anything anywhere near an outhouse or even a chicken house, those places didn't even have to be explained. And the garden, no, not there either, because horses and mules worked the garden and that garden bee balm was not pure. So off we went to climb to a relatively clean place up on the side of the mountain. I always wondered why Aunt Bett thought squirrels and possoms, raccoons and rabbits were any cleaner than horses and mules but I didn't dare ask. Maybe it was just the human contamination that she avoided.
Bee balm, Monarda didyma, had a long and interesting history according to Aunt Bett. She claimed that it was made into tea that was used by the colonists after the episode of the Boston Tea Party. She also told me that Native Americans used bee balm as pomade for their hair and as a steam bath purifier before rituals. Aunt Bett sure knew a lot and I believed everything she said. We gathered bee balm for food and medicinal purposes, though I secretly knew that Aunt Bett brewed it into a tea which she drank every night. She told me it calmed the bees, and if it calmed the bees, then surely it would keep her calm. Maybe so, because I never saw Aunt Bett in a tizzy over anything.
July in the mountains in the 50's was much like July any other year in any other state: HOT. Normally for my trips with Aunt Bett I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt, but that was simply to keep the bugs and spiders away from my skin. By the time I came down the mountain, I was so hot the pants were rolled up to my knees and the shirt sleeves were rolled up to my elbows, and the stinking asphidity bag was dripping sweat. Gathering bee balm was much worse because we had to protect ourselves from the angry bees that also wanted bee balm. I hope you know what long johns are because I hate to even remember them much less describe them. Needless to say, they are normally a wintertime piece of clothing, all in one piece, and they fit closely to the skin from the neck all the way down to the ankles. Long johns went on first. Long socks were the next in the long line of bee balm gathering apparel. Keep in mind this was in July. Over my head went the asphidity bag, next came the long sleeved button up shirt, and trust me, it buttoned all the way up to my chin and all the way down to each wrist, the tighter the better. Next on were overalls, big overalls that were belted tightly around my waist. No going to the bathroom, that was for sure, and trust me, Aunt Bett wore the same attire, but she usually added a long skirt with pockets over her overalls.
It is hard to describe what adorned my head, but I will try. My long curly hair was gathered into two thick braids and wrapped around my head, then pinned in place with at least a gazillion bobby pins. I swear it was so tight my eyes were squinted. But I felt very confident that bumblebees would never get tangled in my hair Then there was a square of white muslin that was placed with the four corners hanging down covering my face, my ears, and the back of my neck. On top of that sat a straw hat. If you dare say, "Oh how cute", I will wish your worst nightmare on you and a used asphidity bag to go with it. To be very honest, the front corner of the muslin could be tucked up under the brim of the hat until we got to the bee balm patch, but then it had to be lowered, simply because the bees had found the bee balm before we did!
Aunt Bett promised me that the bees would not bother us if we did not scare them. So we approached the bee balm patch very quietly, but I noticed that Aunt Bett would hum a wordless tune. It almost became one with the hummmmmm of the bees as they gathered honey from one bright red bloom and then another. I watched Aunt Bett for awhile, as well as I could see from the corners of the white muslin that covered my nose, the bees didn't bother her, so I ventured in closer.
We each had an old pair of scissors and the ever present brown paper bags with clothespins to clip on them when they were filled. I was to cut about three inches above the root and put the entire plant into the brown paper bag. I must also cut from the middle of the patch outward, and then only every fifth plant, no more, no less. What I realize now is that we were taking no more from nature than nature could reproduce easily. We did not take the roots at all, only the blooms, the leaves and the stems. By starting in the middle of the patch, we were following the bees, because the bees also started in the middle with the tallest bunches. This was the Mother Patch Aunt Bett said. It was where the Monarda started growing, and as its roots spread outward new growth formed and the outer perimeters were made up of the newest and the smallest growth. By the time we got to the outer edges, the bees had moved on and we never cut from that youngest perimeter. This method of gathering contributed to continual new growth of the bee balm and assured its renewal every year. All the brown, clothes pinned paper bags went into the big burlap sack that Aunt Bett kept stored in the big pocket of the skirt she wore over her overalls. I didn't have the job of carrying it on my back down the mountainside until a few years later when i grew a little taller, because at that time, the sack was much bigger than I was.
I have to tell you the combination of attire and asphidity bag certainly saved my life more than once. I never got a bee sting, nor did Aunt Bett. To this day she is the only person dead or alive who could ever get me crammed into a garb such as the bee balm attire. Whewwwww! Makes me sweat just to think of it. We got our bee balm gathered and moved on down the mountain, stopping in the shade of one of the huge old trees to partake of our cold well water in the mason fruit jars, and a honey filled biscuit left over from Aunt Bett's breakfast. Before we started on down the mountain, I was allowed to take off my hat and muslin rag, the belt around the overalls, and even the long sleeved shirt, but still the long johns, the asphidity bag, and the overalls stayed. I would have been a lot cooler if I could have stripped down to the long johns, but Aunt Bett was a very modest woman, and no niece of hers would be caught on the mountain with her long johns showing.
When we returned to Aunt Bett's back porch, the clumps of bee balm were tied together with strong twine and were hung on nails from the rafters. There they remained until they were dry enough to work with. Aunt Bett used the Bea Balm in two processes. The first was grinding the dried plant, all of it, and storing it in sealed brown bottles to use as a tea. We also reserved whole leaves of the Monarda (at least 3 bottles full) to use in making canned apple butter. The tea was made using one teaspoon of dried bee balm in a cup, covered with hot water and steeped for at least ten minutes. Before drinking, the tea was sweetened with honey. Not only did this drink act as a mild sedative, but it also was good for treating colds and sore throats. There were times when we would inhale the fumes from the steamed plants in order to clear our sinuses or a stuffed nose. It always worked.
Aunt Bett used the flower and the leaf of the bee balm in cooking as well. The leaves were always added to her apple jelly or her canned apples and pears. Monarda is a part of the mint family after all, and Aunt Bett treasured the extra flavor it added particularly when she used her canned apple butter to make stacked cakes for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The other use that Aunt Bett had for bee balm was as a decoction, a process that involves boiling, and boiling again to get the strongest strength possible from the plant. The final process leaves one with about a pint of strong liquid that is mixed with vegetable oil and beeswax to create a very soothing balm. That balm would often have a red tint depending on the amount of flowers that were used, and it also smelled slightly of mint. The balm itself was used on parched skin, on burns, and on excema and rashes on the surface of the skin. I still find myself searching natural food stores for that balm, because it is wonderful for dry winter elbows and heels. If I still had my longjohns, maybe I could make my own, but then I would need an asphidity bag, too. Sad, I know, but I never learned how to make an asphidity bag.
Here is Aunt Bett and my Granny Ninna's recipe for Stack Cake:
1 Cup brown sugar
3 Cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 Cup molasses
1 1/2 Cups butter
1/2 Cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
2 teaspoons vanilla
"Cream butter, sugar, add eggs. Sift flour, soda and spices together and add alternately with buttermilk. Add vanilla. Turn out on floured board and knead. Pinch off in even balls big enough to flatten and cover bottom of iron skillet. If you have more than one iron skillet and a big enough oven, you can bake as many layers as you have room for. Bake in hot oven for about 25 minutes until brown. Set aside to cool while you bake the rest of the layers. You should have about 4 or 5 balls of dough from this 'receipt'. The more layers you have, the better the cake for a big family.
When balls have flattened and baked and cooled, start with first layer on plate, cover with apple butter. Stack second layer, cover with apple butter. Repeat till all layers are stacked. Do not put apple butter on top layer. Cover cake with clean cloth and store till suppertime. Cut one slice at a time so the cake will not dry out. It is better to let covered cake 'set' overnight before eating it. The apple butter will soak in good overnight."
I don't have the recipe for apple butter, but I am still searching. I only remember what a treat it was to sometimes find a piece of a leaf in a jar of apple butter or even in the middle of a Stack Cake, because I knew it was probably one of the leaves from the bee balm that I helped Aunt Bett gather.
We can find Monarda in new and interesting colors now, ranging from pale pinks to deep reds and dark purples. In the days of Bee Balm gathering with Aunt Bett, we gathered only the wild deep red Bee Balm, and it still is my favorite, although I love to see all the new colors clustered in gardens.
Next time you go gathering Bee Balm, don't forget your longjohns!
All photos of Monarda in this article came from DG Plant Files.
Special thanks go to Todd Boland, Sheila_FW, KevinMc79, Dicentra63, and Joy for use of their photos. Their love for Monarda is apparent in the beauty of their photographs.
The photo of the Apple Stack Cake is from Laura Bryan: wwwlauraskitchen.com, with special permission for its use.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.