Bees and hummingbirds flock to the red, pink, white or violet blossoms of bee balm (Monarda spp). This perennial plant may also be considered an herb or an ornamental flowering plant. Its leaves are aromatic, and the midsummer floral display makes it a popular choice for gardens. It grows well in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 or 4 through 9, depending on species.
Bee balm plants belong to the botanical genus Monarda, which comprises nearly 15 species of clump-forming annual or perennial plants. Two species in particular are grown in gardens in temperate zones: Monarda didyma, also known as bergamot or Oswego tea, and Monarda fistulosa, called wild bee balm. Genetic hybrids among these two species and others make up dozens of cultivated varieties available today. Spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) is sometimes grown, but it varies in its life span.
All bee balm species hail from the dry scrub, prairie and sunny woodland regions across North America. The three species mentioned are native to the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.
Touch the bee balm stems to feel their four-sided shapes, which is typical of plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae. The mid- to dark-green or sometimes purplish green leaves range in shape from lance-like to tapering ovals among the different species, but all have veiny leaves in opposite pairs on the stems. The leaf edges often bear tiny teeth. In midsummer, stem tips don tufted whorled clusters of many tiny, tubular flowers that are either red, pink, white or violet in color. The individual blossom has two lips--the top lip is upright and looks like a hood, while the lower lip is spread, with three lobes. Red-tinged bracts add additional texture and color interest just below the flower clusters. Flowering continues for weeks until early autumn, and seeds are shed across the landscape. Frost kills the bee balm foliage in autumn.
Grow bee balm in moist but well-draining garden soil with any fertilizer. Humus-rich soils result in the most luxuriant and vigorous growth. This can border on the weedy/invasive, because the seeds germinate readily and the spreading root rhizomes make large clumping plants over time. Provide at least four to six hours of direct sunlight daily for good growth and abundant flowering; too little light causes floppy stems and few flowers. Bee balm plants have a longer life span when the garden soil never dries out in summer and is not overly wet in winter while dormant. In mild winter regions with long hot summers, bee balms tend to be short-lived no matter what gardeners do.
It's a pretty wildflower for a meadow or perennial border, yet bee balm carries culinary and medicinal merits too. Fresh flowers can be eaten in salads, and young, tender leaves used as a cooking herb for flavoring. Oil of thyme is made from bee balm. Dried flowers or leaves can be used in potpourri or brewed to make a tea. In fact, Oswego tea, brewed from Monarda didyma, was used during the American Revolution as a substitute for English tea after the Boston Tea Party, according to Alternative Nature Online Herbal. Native Americans used bee balm as a sweat-inducer, stimulant and antiseptic, as well as to lessen discomfort from sore throats, menstruation, colds and headaches.