Brilliant Bee Balms

By Holly Shimizu

Looking out my front window, I am struck by the many reasons I love bee balms (Monarda spp.). I can clip young leaves to brew herbal tea, or harvest the flowers to add to a salad.

Butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other nectar-seeking creatures covet the tubular flowers on rounded flower heads, which are brilliant additions to late-summer herb gardens and flower borders. Moreover, several varieties with distinctive colors and unique shapes are now more readily available. I've combined several in my own edible landscape border, and the sight is impressive. The more I grow bee balms, the more I discover new virtues of these remarkable plants.

Our ancestors understood that bee balm is both good-looking and good for you. In Colonial times, it was important enough to be planted near front doors, where it was easy to see and easy to harvest. Later settlers used Oswego tea (M. didyma), also called bergamot, in place of true bergamot (a citrus) to make a version of Earl Grey tea.

Knowledge of bee balm's virtues stretches back still further. From Native Americans, early European settlers learned how to treat colds with a tea made of equal amounts of spotted horsemint (M. punctata) and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). In fact, from 1820 to 1882, spotted horsemint was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the 19th-century equivalent of today's Physician's Desk Reference. Catawba Indians used bee balm tea to treat backaches. Cherokees combined the leaves and flowering tops of wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) and M. didyma to treat colds, stomach complaints, colic and gas, measles, flu, and heart troubles. Many tribes made a poultice of the leaves to treat headaches.

Current research reinforces the traditional wisdom. Dr. James Duke, retired United States Department of Agriculture ethnobotanist, notes that bee balms, like several of their mint family relatives, are rich in antioxidants (nutrients that protect human cells from damage caused by highly reactive and destructive "free radicals") and thymol (a chemical compound used to treat bacteria, fungus, and intestinal worms, and a key ingredient of Listerine mouthwash and similar antiseptic preparations). Duke recommends drinking a cup of bee balm tea each day to ensure a healthful supply of antioxidants.

Make bee balm tea by adding 1/2 cup of fresh (or 1/4 cup of dried) bee balm leaves and flowers to a tea bag or tea ball. Pour in boiling water and allow to steep for 4 to 5 minutes. Flavor to taste with honey.

You can also use leaves and flowers of bee balm to flavor fruit punch. Use the fresh flowers to add color to salads, or use either dried flowers or leaves to flavor turkey, chicken, or pork.

Know, Grow, and Landscape with Bee Balm

These members of the mint family form bushy, leafy clumps that grow 1-1/2- to 4-feet tall. The oval, dark green leaves have toothed edges, and have a strong scent of mint with overtones of other herbs, some rose-flavored, some lemony. Like all mints, stems are distinctly four-sided. In summer and fall, tight clusters of long, tubular, and nectar-rich flowers appear atop stems. Depending upon the variety, flowers are pink, white, blue, violet, purple, or scarlet.

Perennial clumps spread by underground rhizomes. They're not as invasive as mints, but can overwhelm a nearby lavender, for instance. Annual bee balms do not spread by rhizomes.

Bee balms are native to North America, from Vermont to Florida, and from Texas to British Columbia. Few plants make so little demand on the gardener. Annual bee balms do seem to prefer sandy, acidic soils and full sun, but perennial kinds thrive in a range of soils. Most grow best given full sun or partial shade, reasonably fertile and moist soil, and a compost mulch.

Propagate annuals from seed sown in place in late spring. Increase perennials either from seed sown in a cold frame in early spring, or (better) from division in fall or spring of established clusters. Set transplants about 10 inches apart. Plants tend to thin or die in the center as they grow outward, a habit that makes division necessary every three to four years.

Bee balms are not long-lived where winters are mild, or where summers are long and hot. Most kinds grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8. The one serious pest of Monarda didyma, mildew, is exacerbated wherever summers are hot and dry. The best bet is to plant mildew-resistant varieties (see following section), or any of the other species that are not susceptible.

Combine bee balms with other herbs, vegetables, and roses in borders, cutting gardens, containers, and naturalistic settings. They are handsome summer- and fall-bloomers, and clumps look good near water. Their flowers are long-lasting and striking in arrangements. Both leaves and flowers are used in potpourris and tussie-mussies (a bouquet of herbs).

A Roundup of Bee Balms for the Garden

Of the dozen or so identified bee balm species, the following five and their varieties are the most useful for gardeners.

Lemon bee balm (M. citriodora). Annual, all zones; can be grown as a short-lived perennial in mild-winter regions (zones 8 to 11). As its name implies, this one (native to the southern and southwestern United States) is noted for its citrus scent. It is one of the shorter types (2 1/2 to 3 feet tall), which makes it perfect for borders. Bloom season is long, hummingbirds love the pale lavender flowers, and blooms make excellent arrangements.

'Lambada' is a striking new variety of M. citriodora from Holland. It produces large, multiple tufted whorls of lavender-rose tubular flowers that extend up the stem in fringed puffs of color.

Bee balm, bergamot, Oswego tea (M. didyma). Perennial; zones 4 through 9. This hardy plant, common in woodlands in the Northeast, is the dominant bee balm. The name Oswego tea comes from the English botanist Peter Collinson, who named the newly discovered plant in 1745 for the place where the seeds were collected, Oswego, New York. This plant became well known after the Shakers in northern New York recommended using the leaves for tea. Its brilliant crimson flowers atop 3- to 4-foot stems are excellent for attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds and sphinx moths (which behave much like hummingbirds).

Plants grow best if given partial shade and moist, organic-rich soil. But they are prone to mildew by summer's end. If your plants are prematurely afflicted, cut them back to the base no later than midsummer to encourage new leaf growth. A better tack is planting only newer, mildew-resistant varieties (see below).

Generally the varieties with red flowers prefer more shade and moisture, while those with lavender or white flowers do best in sunnier, drier conditions. (Many of these named varieties of M. didyma are hybrids of M. clinopodia, M. didyma, and M. fistulosa. Some botanists refer to the entire group as M. media.)

Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa). Perennial; zones 3 through 9. Wild bergamot (no relation to true bergamot, a citrus) grows in dry, open woodlands and wood margins, primarily in eastern North America. It thrives in places that have cool summers, conditions typical in the heart of its native range from New England to Georgia. Compared with other bee balms, wild bergamot is less showy, stems are more noticeably four-sided, and leaves are a little hairier, more sweetly fragrant, and less toothed than those of M. didyma. Lavender-pink flowers come in late summer, the newest flower developing above the older ones. Height is 3 to 4 feet.

'Rose;', a new variety, is notable for smelling and tasting in all its parts like an old-fashioned rose. It's an ideal fragrance and flavor substitute for rose geranium where that plant isn't hardy.

The closely related M. f. menthifolia grows in western North America. When dried, it substitutes well for oregano.

M. pringlei. Annual or short-lived perennial; all zones. Though this stunning bee balm reaches only 18 inches tall, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds cover it throughout its long blooming season that begins in late spring or early summer and continues until frost. Its glossy, dark green mounds of foliage remain green during the winter in zones 7 to 11. This species does not get powdery mildew.

Spotted horsemint (M. punctata). Annual or short-lived perennial; all zones. This 2-foot plant is extraordinary in bloom, producing tiers of showy pink bracts, and dense whorls of purple-spotted yellow flowers. Bloom starts in early summer and lasts until frost. Start plants from seed sown in place in early spring. Plants tolerate dry soil (even prefer sandy soil), and rarely suffer from powdery mildew. Spotted horsemint contains the greatest concentration of thymol.

Holly Shimizu is the director of the U.S. National Arboretum and an herb specialist.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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