A member of the mint family, crimson bee balm (Monarda didyma) is also known as bergamot or Oswego tea. A tall perennial with an aggressive growing habit, crimson bee balm has clusters of red flowers that bloom in the summertime. The flowers paired with dark green foliage makes crimson bee balm stand out wherever it grows. Native to the Northeast in North America, bee balm is a well-rounded plant with more than one way to use it.
Crimson bee balm creates a colorful border plant in the garden. Because of its bright red flowers and shade tolerance, it has value as an ornamental plant. Bee balm spreads easily by rhizomes, sometimes overwhelming other plants in the garden. Control the invasive nature of bee balm by dividing the plant every three years or use it to naturalize in an informal wildflower garden, where it can spread at will. In the vegetable garden, bee balm will boost the flavor of tomatoes, when used in companion planting with tomato plants.
A perfect plant to bring in the wildlife, bee balm's nectar-filled blossoms attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Bee balm plants have a long flowering season with blooms lasting around two months. It blooms summer to fall in the North, and early spring to early summer in the South. A butterfly garden would be incomplete without this invaluable plant.
The dried leaves of the bee balm plant have a taste similar to bergamot orange oil. The bergamot orange gives the popular English black tea, Earl Grey, its flavor. The Oswego Indians used bee balm leaves to make tea, giving bee balm its other common name, Oswego tea. The tea became popular after the Boston tea party as a substitute to the teas that came from England. The edible bee balm flower heads taste like mint, an interesting flavor to add to salads and desserts. The bee balm leaves will also flavor recipes that call for oregano. Crimson bee balm gives a spicy, minty oregano flavor to cooked dishes.
The Indians used bee balm to sooth toothaches and other mouth problems. Even today, thymol, the active ingredient in commercial mouthwashes, comes from bee balm. Bee balm tea was used to destroy bacteria and intestinal parasites, effective because of the thymol found in the leaves. Making a pumice with crushed leaves from bee balm soothes bee stings, sore eyes and other skin problems.