Bee balm adds old-fashioned charm to any herb or cottage garden. Its cheerful shaggy-headed flowers look like sunbursts amid more sedate ornamentals. Take advantage of bee balm's citrus-like qualities not just in the garden, but for scenting the home and adding a kick to your recipes.
Bee Balm Aliases
Officially called Monarda didyma in horticultural circles, the flowering herb also goes by scarlet mondarda, bee balm, bergamot and Oswego tea. It has more common names than most herbs because of its many attributes. They include the flowers' vivid scarlet hue; the scent of its flowers and leaves, which smell strikingly similar to the bergamot orange; its bee-attracting qualities; and its former use by the Oswego Native American tribe as a medicinal tea.
The herb's horticultural name reflects its study by Spanish botanist Nicholas Monardes in the 16th century.
Depending on the variety, bee balm grows between 1 to 4 feet tall, and becomes quite bushy after a year or two. Its flowers have something of a "fuzzy" look due to their tight clusters of tubular flowers emerging from a broad center. The toothed leaves are oval and red-veined. Flower colors include scarlet, pink and purple. Both the flowers and leaves smell and taste strongly of citrus.
An unfussy perennial that's both ornamental and useful, bee balm grows well in sun or part shade. It prefers moist soil. Plant 18 inches apart or even farther -- the plants' growing habit is famously aggressive. Divide the plants every 3 years to keep them vigorous.
Available bee balm varieties include dwarf forms, such as 'Petite Delight' and 'Petite Wonder'; the lavender-flowered 4-foot-tall 'Little Miriam'; the pastel 'Croftway Pink' and the scarlet 'Jacob Cline,' which are both 3 feet tall. All are hardy at least to USDA zone 5, some to zone 3.
Bee balm flower petals dress up salad while adding a lemon-like zest. Use the stem and flower as a unique cocktail swizzle in lemonade or iced tea. Add petals to jellies and jams or herbal vinegars. Infuse fresh or dried chopped leaves in hot water for teas, in cream to make toppings for pound cake, or in milk to make the refreshing beverage known as bergamot milk.
In folk medicine, bee balm carries a reputation for soothing skin irritation, making an herbal infusion of bee balm leaves an interesting choice for homemade hand creams and body lotions. Some people take the tea when they have colds, headaches or menstrual pain. Consult a physician before using any herbal recipes for medicinal purposes.
Dry both the leaves and flowers to add to citrus-scented potpourri, or to an orange top note to other kinds of potpourri, such as mint or floral. Bee balm's flowers retain their vivid hues when dried, making them pretty, aromatic additions not just to potpourri, but to wreaths and other dried arrangements.