Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is also known as wild bergamot, Oswego tea and horsemint. The flowers of this aromatic herb are reminiscent of fireworks or a pompom, with the center bursting forth and the back petals radiating all around. Its flowers coms in pink, red, mauve, purple and white and are particularly attractive to butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. The plant grows 2 to 4 feet tall in a bushy manner and blooms in mid- to late summer. Each plant can have 20 to 40 flowers.
Bee balm has its origin in North America. The Oswego Indians used it to make a delicious tea and taught settlers coming to America to make it. After the Boston Tea Party, it was a very popular beverage. Bee balm is a member of the mint family but has a citrus quality to it. The scent is similar to the bergamot orange that flavors Earl Grey tea.
Location and Planting
Bee balm will grow just about anywhere, including a wet bog-like soil, although it does prefer well-drained soil. It loves the sun but will also tolerate partial shade. To be sure it does not take over the entire garden, bee balm should be contained in a large pot. Purchase a plant at a garden center or get a division from an established plant in late spring. Dig a hole deep enough to accommodate all the roots to the top of the stem and place it in the hole, filling in and firming the soil. Water right after planting and then daily for about a week.
A little compost every spring and a layer of mulch to retain moisture will keep your bee balm happy. It does not need fertilizer. If there is less than 1 inch of rain during the week, you'll need to give it supplemental water. Removing dead flowers encourages more to bloom. Bee balm should be divided every two or three years to prevent the middle of the plant from dying out.
Bee balm is a perennial and will return the next spring. After the first killing frost turns the stems brown, cut the plant back to 2 inches above the ground and mulch well for added protection during the winter. Bee balm grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 10, with some varieties being less cold hardy.
Flowers and leaves can be cut whenever you choose. A large harvest can be dried by cutting back the stems to within 2 inches of the ground. Bundle enough to be caught in a bunch gathered with a rubber band and hang from a beam in a dry area out of direct sunlight for about two weeks. Once the flowers are dry, store them in an airtight container.
Oswego tea is easy to make and delicious, with a taste of citrus and mint. Place 1 tbsp. of dried flowers and leaves in a tea strainer and pour 1 cup of water over them. Steep for about 10 minutes covered with the saucer. Use honey to sweeten if desired.
Add the fresh flowers and leaves to salads. Bee balm is especially good in fruit salad with melons, but also works well with a vegetable salad. Sprinkle bee balm flowers and leaves over vegetables or add to sausage and other meat dishes. Some varieties have a flavor similar to oregano.
Because the flowers retain their colors, they are an excellent addition to any potpourri. Bee balm lends both the beauty of the flower and the citrusy freshness of the scent.
Tie some of the herb in a square of fabric and throw it into your bath water.
Calming the effects of a cold is a popular use for the herb. The tea can ease a sore throat and cough as well as help a fever to diminish. It also will calm menstrual pain and help you go to sleep during a fit of insomnia. For a cold, boil water and pour it into a bowl on a counter. Place 1 or 2 tbsp. of dried bee balm in the bowl and stir. Place a towel over the bowl and over your head. Breathe in the steam to ease inflamed mucus membranes.
Do not ingest bee balm if you are pregnant because it can cause contractions.