Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is one of nature’s more improbable looking plants. The most common type of bee balm, scarlet bee balm, is often planted as a hardy perennial in flower beds. The bright red flowers look like tuffs of hair atop the three feet tall stalks.
Bee balm is in the mint family but is not a true mint. Still, its’ leaves smell minty and it has square stems. It will also spread to engulf a flower bed just as mint will do if allowed to.
Bee balm is native to North America and various species occur all over the continent. Bee balm is propagated from either seeds or cuttings. To keep the clumps of plants healthy and free of powdery mildew, they need to be divided every three years. This provides a ready supply of new plants.
The seeds come from the flowers. Allow the flowers to dry, then tap them. If the brown seed falls out, it is ready. Air dry and then scarify before planting.
Bee balm is usually around two to four feet tall, but can grow to six feet if the growing conditions are just right. It prefers full sun but will grow in partial shade. Bee balm prefers moist, acidic soils to grow in. In the wild, it grows in thickets, meadows, and edges from British Columbia to Mexico and Georgia.
The red blooms are present from spring to late summer in the South, while it blooms from May to September in the North. The blooms attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees to the garden so are often used in hummingbird gardens. The essential oil in the bee balm is said to repel soil pests so it is often planted as a border around vegetable gardens. This both repels the insect pests and attracts bees and other pollinators to aid in pollinating the garden vegetables. Tomatoes are said to especially benefit from this companion planting.
The Latin name of the plant was in honor of 16th century Spanish physician and botanist, Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588). Although Monardes never came to America, he was able to study much of its’ botany because Spaniards brought samples home from their many trips to colonize the New World.
Lemon bee balm, a cousin of scarlet bee balm, is similarly improbable in appearance. Both scarlet bee balm and lemon bee balm were used as tea substitutes by colonists when tea was scarce.
They were also used extensively by Native Americans as medicinal plants. The Oswego Indians of New York regularly made a tea referred to as Oswego tea from the plant leaves. The tea was reputed to treat worms, gas, and stomach ailments.
Bee balms were also used to treat bee stings by crushing the leaves and rubbing them on the sting. The Black Feet Indians used these leaves as antiseptics and made poultices to cover minor wounds and prevent infection.
A mouthwash made from an infusion of the leaves in boiling water was used to treat gum diseases and abscesses. Thymol, an ingredient in the essential oil of bee balm, is used in modern mouthwashes for the same reason.
The dried leaves are used as a seasoning with wild game. The thymol makes the leaves a little bitter, but they are reputed to taste like spearmint or peppermint mixed with a little oregano. The flowers are also edible.
Bee balm is a hardy plant that is resistant to most pests and diseases. Occasionally, slugs will eat the plant down to the roots in the spring. They can be combated with the usual slug traps to protect the plants.
Overcrowded plants are vulnerable to powdery mildew, rust, and occasionally tobacco mosaic virus. Dividing the plants every three years and making sure there is adequate circulation around the plant core will help prevent these diseases.
Bee balm will grow almost anywhere in North America as long as it is in full sun. Plant some of these showy plants in your garden to enjoy the blooms and the wildlife these plants attract.