Monarda is a genus of 17 native North American aromatic perennials related to mint. Their showy flower heads — which range in color from bright red (Monarda didyma) to lavender (M. fistulosa) to yellow (M. punctata) — are extremely attractive to bees.
The common name “bee balm” refers to its use as a poultice for the treatment of bee stings. Named for Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588), a 16th-century Spanish physician who documented many New World plants, herbs in this genus are also known as bergamots because their fragrance is similar to that of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia).
The monardas, which grow wild throughout North American woodland edges, prairies, and along stream banks, were widely used by Native Americans and early European settlers. Native Americans prepared infusions and poultices from the plants to treat fevers, colds, flus, respiratory and kidney conditions, abdominal discomfort, skin infections, wounds, and many other ailments.
During the American War of Independence, Colonial Americans dried the leaves of Monarda didyma and used them as a substitute for British-imported tea. The common name “Oswego tea” was coined by the renowned 18th-century botanist John Bartram (1699–1777), who encountered the herb at Fort Oswego, New York, where it grew abundantly.
Common Names: Bee Balm, Bergamot, Horse Balm, Monarda, Oswego Tea
Description: Bright scarlet, lavender, or yellow flower heads grow in tiers atop 3- to 4-foot stems; opposite, dark green, ovate leaves with toothed margins
Hardiness: To Zone 3 or 4, depending on species and variety
Flowering: July to August
Parts Used: Leaves and flowers
Range/Habitat: Native to North America; habitat varies according to species
A blend of Monarda didyma leaves, mint, and orange peel makes a delicious iced tea. The plant’s flowers are also edible and can be added to salads or used to decorate cakes, fruit punches, or iced teas. Use M. fistulosa leaves in teas or to flavor bean and meat dishes. M. citriodora, known as lemon bergamot, also makes a tasty tea and flavorful accent for fish and meats. Try mincing the fresh leaves of any type and adding them to plain yogurt with a bit of honey as a topping for fresh fruit. Or include a handful of the fresh leaves when making jelly. Strain the leaves before boiling down to the gel stage.
Plants in this genus contain a compound with antiseptic and expectorant properties. Monarda punctata has been used to treat digestive ailments such as indigestion, nausea, and vomiting and upper respiratory conditions such as cold and flu. It also helps to reduce fever by increasing sweating, and it encourages the onset of menstruation. Combined with other herbs, M. didyma is helpful in the treatment of urinary tract infections and indigestion, and laboratory studies have suggested that it may inhibit the growth of certain viruses.
Caution: Monarda species should not be taken during pregnancy.
Long blooming and deer resistant, monardas make excellent garden plants. Their bright blooms attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies and add color to cottage gardens, informal borders, and cut flower arrangements. Recommended cultivars include ‘Blue Stocking’ (violet-purple blooms), ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ (bright red blooms), ‘Croft-way Pink’ (rosy pink blooms), and ‘Snow Maiden’ (white blooms).
How to grow it
Plant Monarda didyma in rich, moist soil in full sun. M. fistulosa and M. punctata prefer dry, light, alkaline soil in full sun. Pinch back the tops of your plants in late spring to encourage bushier growth. Harvest leaves for tea just before the plant flowers in midsummer to late summer, and again after flowering has finished. To obtain the best flavor for tea, strip the leaves from the stems and dry them in a warm, shady place for 2 to 3 days. Longer drying periods tend to produce less-flavorful teas. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container in a cool location.
After 3 to 4 years, bee balm clumps tend to die out in the center. To rejuvenate your planting, dig up the roots in fall and replant only the outside sucker shoots. Space the new plants about 2 feet apart.
Learning from the Birds, Bees, and Butterflies
With a profusion of blood red flowers that glow in the late summer sun, bee balm (Monarda didyma) can transform the landscape into a spectacular palette of color.
Large numbers of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds congregate around each planting to feed on the refreshing nectar. But not every creature can procure the saccharine treasure — they must have long tongues that can reach down into the floral tubes.
We can enjoy this essence, as well: Pour a cup of boiling water over a teaspoon of fresh bee balm flowers or leaves, allow the tea to steep for 10 to 15 minutes, and then sweeten it to taste. Try this wonderful tea in the evening before sleeping, particularly if a cold is coming on.