Meet genus Monarda, aka bee balm, a member of the mint (Laminaceae) family, named in honor of the 16th century Spanish physician and botanist Nicolas Bautista Monardes. Monardes wrote some of the earliest books about the medicinal uses of America’s native plants from intel gathered by early explorers who “discovered” Monarda and some of its many uses from the indigenous people who inhabited the New World.
Native Americans infused the Monarda plant in tea to treat lung ailments like colds and flu and used it topically as an antiseptic for wounds and to reduce the swelling of bee stings — hence, its common name: bee balm.
“A favorite among Native Americans as a source of various medicines, bee balm will quickly become one of your favorite garden plants too,” Amanda Bennett, vice president of horticulture and collections at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, says in an email.
Bee balm isn’t just another pretty flower in the garden. It’s a versatile herb that has lots of health and culinary applications. Its leaves are edible raw or cooked, it has medicinal properties and it can be made into an aromatic tea. It also happens to be a perennial powerhouse that attracts a plethora of pollinators to its spectacular blossoms. And bee balm has a storied history as well.
The Story of Bee Balm
Also known as wild bergamot (for its citrusy aroma and flavor similar to Earl Grey tea) and horsemint, by the early 18th century the vigorous North American Monarda was regarded as a desirable kitchen and ornamental plant. In 1744, the American botanist John Bartram sent Monarda didyma seeds he’d collected from the gardens of settlers near Oswego, New York to England. By 1760, there was an abundance of Oswego tea (another common name for bee balm) to be found in the markets of Covent Garden.
Adding to its lore, bee balm saved the day as a patriotic replacement for English tea after the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when the Sons of Liberty, a group of colonial merchants and tradesmen, threw 342 chests of black tea imported by a British cargo ship into Boston Harbor to protest high taxes imposed by British Parliament. It was an act of political rebellion that steepened tensions between America and Britain and was a catalyst for the Revolutionary War.
What to Know About Growing Bee Balm
More than 15 species of bee balm grow in North America, some more widespread than others.
Rose and lavender-colored Monarda fistulosa, aka wild bergamot, is a cold-hardy perennial that grows from the Rocky Mountains to the east. Because it has mint-scented leaves that can be used in a variety of culinary sauces, wild bergamot is sometimes called Oregano de la Sierra.
Monarda didyma, native to the eastern U.S., includes garden hybrids with scarlet and lavender-hued whorls that look like exploding fireworks.
Bee balm blooms between June and September depending on the area of the country and is a hardy perennial from USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4-9. It has the mint family’s trademark square stems and opposite leaves, and blooms best in full sun but is amenable to partial shade. It grows from 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) tall and prefers well-drained soil, but will tolerate heavy clay and bog-like situations as well.
The main problem with Monarda is powdery mildew, especially in areas with high humidity. The foliage tends to get brown and scraggly, so you might want to plant it in the back of your garden where the foliage won’t show and the flowers can burst forth in all their glory and add radiant pops of color as a backdrop to your summer garden. Because it is a prodigious spreader, some gardeners prefer to plant bee balm in pots.
“Stalwart varieties, such as ‘Jacob Cline’, as well as newer selections, like “Bee-Happy’ that are more powdery mildew resistant are all on the market,” says Bennett. “All have large, unusual looking flowers that can range from pinks to purples to white. A perennial grown in full sun with well-drained soil, it is irresistible to many different species of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and beneficial insects. Supporting the beneficial and pollinators improves the overall health of the whole garden resulting in less pest infestations and need for chemical intervention.”
Bee balm: It keeps your homestead pollinators happy and abuzz in superabundance. You can eat it and drink it. It’s lovely to behold with an enticing scent. And should you get stung by a bee while you’re working in your garden, you can crush up the leaves and hold it on your boo-boo for au naturale relief. What’s not to love?