Are you familiar with bee balm? Also known by its scientific name, Monarda, it’s a flowering plant genus in the mint family. It’s also known as horsemint and wild bergamot, and is native to North America. This flower—which smells a bit like oregano—is one of the best pollinator-attracting plants you can have in your garden.
What is Bee Balm?
There are over 20 species of Monarda spp: some annuals, others perennial. As its colloquial name suggests, it’s attractive to bees and other pollinating insects, as well as hummingbirds and beneficial garden bugs.
Historically, it has been used for health care and wellbeing, prized for the essential oils it contains, and also used as a seasoning. Therefore, it’s a well-rounded plant that’s easy to grow and has many uses—both in the garden and for the gardener.
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is more robust than cultivated varieties (such as Monarda didyma). The latter are mainly grown to enhance their essential oil, or to be used as medicine.
Bee balm is an easy plant to identify when it ‘s growing wild in fields, stream beds or woodland edges. The flowers are distinct with a spiky appearance. Lower petals resemble a lip, while the top petals are a mass of individual flowers that look like clustered, fanning tubes. Those long tubes contain the nectar that hummingbirds are drawn to, and the birds’ long beaks are the perfect tools to dig in.
Stems are square shaped like other mints, and the leaves are pointed lancets, which grow in opposite pairs. They grow to about 3 feet tall. When you rub the leaves or flowers, they smell like a cross between mint and oregano. Some varieties give off lemony scents.
The flowers come in varying shades of red, purple, pink, and white.
Red flowering bee balm is also known as Oswego Tea, since some Native American tribes in New York’s Oswego region used it. Colonial settlers also drank the tea to avoid taxation from the crown after the Boston Tea Party.
The purple flowering variety is known as wild bergamot because it smells similar to the orange bergamot citrus tree. This variety was used traditionally as a sweat inducer in indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies.
John Bartram, an English colonist living in Philadelphia, is said to have sent seeds to England in the mid-1700s, where the plant is known today as gold Melissa or Indian nettle.
How to Make Oswego Tea
1 Tablespoon of dried flower petals and leaves (or 2 tablespoons of fresh for every cup of water)
Heat the water to almost boiling, and then pour over the herbs. Allow the herbs to steep for about 15 minutes. Sweeten with honey if desired.
Bee Balm Varieties
Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma are the varieties most commonly used as medicine by particular Native American tribes, including Blackfoot, Menominee, Ojibwe, and Winnebago.
M. didyma has red-colored flowers, and contains the highest amounts of essential oils. Monarda citriodora has leaves that are lemon-scented. Monarda fistulosa, which has pink or lavender flowers, is the variety known as wild bergamot.
Varieties native to California are Monarda pectinata Nutt. and Monarda punctata L. ssp. The M. punctata variety is also known as horsemint, or spotted bee balm.
Its Many Uses
Although the bees do love bee balm, it was the local hummingbirds that frequented my own plants the most. They were so in love with the nectar that I never needed a hummingbird feeder. We could watch them closely, and they weren’t distracted from their work.
Another way that this plant helps bees is that it contains thymol: a phenol that has been developed by R.O.B. Manely. It’s used to successfully prevent fermentation and mold growth in bee colonies.
It’s a wonderful companion plant for the garden since it attracts pollinators. Plant it in large clumps so that the pollinators have plenty to feed on in one concentrated area.
As mentioned, the major constituent of the oil is thymol: a phenol that gives it antimicrobial properties. This is especially good for the skin. Bee balm is also soothing, and therefore the oil can be used to help uplift the spirit, calm anxiety and help in stressful moments. Use its essential oil in a diffuser, or add the oil to bath water.
The plant has a spicy aroma that tastes like a mix of spearmint and peppermint, with a sharp oregano tang. Native Americans traditionally used bee balm as a seasoning for wild game—particularly fowl—but it also goes well with lamb. Many Greek dishes use a combination of mint and oregano.
Bee balm’s thymol concentration has strong antiseptic, anti-fungal, and anesthetic properties.
Healthy Teeth and Gums
An herbal tea made from the herb was traditionally used to treat mouth and throat infections caused by cavities and gingivitis. Therefore it’s a good ingredient in homemade mouthwash.
Helps the Skin
It’s also useful as a topical skin wash for minor cuts, scrapes, and rashes. Or you can make a salve to rub on the skin. Bee balm has also been used traditionally to quell the pain and inflammation of bee stings by crushing the leaves of the plant and rubbing them on the skin.
Arthritis & Joint Pain
The salve can also be useful for arthritis and joint pain.
Cold & Flu Support
Bee balm has antimicrobial properties and it is soothing like others in the mint family. This makes it a popular home remedy for soothing sore throats, and coughs. Try making an oxymel (an herbal infusion that uses honey and vinegar) of bee balm to have on hand the next time you’re feeling under the weather.
Supports a Woman’s Reproductive System
Herbalist Kiva Rose talks about the many uses of bee balm for women. She recommends it for use in supporting the body through issues with menstruation, urinary tract infections, and candida.
Anxiety & Stress
It’s relaxing, and therefore it is good to enjoy tea made from it if you experience anxiety or stress. Bee balm tea can also be used as a gentle sleep aid.
How to Grow It
Bee balm thrives in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 9. Plant it in the spring or fall. It can even be grown in containers: all you need is a large 5-gallon pot and some potting soil.
It’s easy to grow from seed and takes between 10 and 40 days to germinate. Start seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before your average last frost date. Harden seedlings and transplant to your garden after all danger of frost is past.
Plants should be spaced in the garden at 18 -24 inches apart because it will spread quickly.
Bee balm requires full sun but can manage in partial shade. It dosn’t like soggy or dry soil; it enjoys some moisture around the roots. Augment the soil in its first year with some good compost to help it establish a good root system, but the plant is robust and should do well if it’s planted where the right conditions are met for optimal growth.
How to Care for Your Plants
Bee balm is very low maintenance. Like others in the mint family, it requires regular thinning, and can easily take over the garden if not maintained. Since it only flowers for a few weeks, from July to early August, cut the blooms when they’re full, and deadhead the plant to promote the growth of new flowers.
It’s important to divide it regularly, every 2-3 years in the early spring, as soon as you begin to see new growth. Simply dig it up, and inspect the root ball for natural divisions to determine the easiest places to divide it. Then separate it into 3-4 parts. Plant one section in the original hole, and place the new plants in sunny well-drained areas, or share with other gardeners.
Problems and Solutions
Powdery mildew is the most likely problem to affect bee balm. It attacks the leaves during especially humid summers. Just cut the plant down, and it’ll come back the following year.
How to Harvest Bee Balm
Harvest most of the plant by clipping the base of the stalk. It’s good to cut bee balm back to promote stronger growth the next year. You can tie the ends of the stems and hang to dry in a warm place. Or, pick the leaves and petals from the stalks, spread them out on a screen and allow them to dry naturally away from dust. Drying can take from 1-2 weeks. Alternately you can use a dehydrator.
This is a wonderful plant that has a ton of benefits both for the garden and the gardener, so grow some today!