Chosen “Herb of the Year” in 1996 for its versatility, knock-your-socks-off aroma of mint, citrus and a touch of spice, striking deep red blooms and free entertainment for both the hummingbirds and sphinx moths, Monarda didyma is easy to grow and you can drink it too! It even has a total of three common names which refer to its attributes – “bee balm” for the bees’ love of the flowers’ nectar as well as its use to reduce the pain from bee stings, “bergamot” for its aroma which was reminiscent of the bergamot orange to Nicholas Monardes, a Spanish physician and botanist, who discovered it and is the source of its botanical name, and “Oswego Tea” for its use as a beverage by the Indians from the Oswego River area in New York, who also taught the Colonists to substitute it for the tea imported by the British after the Boston Tea Party.
A hardy perennial which prefers good, moist soil and full sun, bee balm splashes the summer garden with its silky, spiky blooms of red tubular bracts around a pin-cushion-like center, blooming from late June to September, combined with oval, dark green toothed-edged leaves and square stems typical of the mint family. Also typical of mint is its spread by rhizomes which can make it invasive but also makes it so dense that no weeds can penetrate the clumps. It needs to be divided often, not only to control its spread, but its problem with powdery mildew which is caused by poor air circulation and overcrowding, although some newer varieties such as “Jacob Cline” are mildew-resistant. Division is also the best method of propagation, since seed doesn’t always come true. Pinching in spring makes bushier plants and deadheading extends the bloom season. Harvest the leaves and flowers at their peak and use fresh or bundle to dry upside down until crisp, then store in airtight containers out of direct sunlight.
As useful in the kitchen as the landscape, bee balm imparts a citrus-mint flavor from its leaves and edible flowers to both tea and recipes usually calling for mint. It is excellent in cold punches, fruit salads, turkey, chicken or pork recipes, jellies or as a garnish for warm weather desserts. Its tea has relaxing, antidepressant qualities, making it a good night-time drink and bee balm blends well with chamomile and lemon verbena. It is also rich in antioxidants and thymol - a compound used for antiseptic preparations. The long-lasting flowers are also used to add an unusual form to cut flower arrangements especially for the 4th of July, and both leaves and flowers are used in tussie mussies and added to potpourri.
Bee Balm attracts bees,
making it excellent to grow
near vegetables gardens or orchards
The fragrance of bee balm
sends deer grazing elsewhere!!
". . . I have given you all things even as the green herbs."