This summer was a great year for plants if they weren’t underwater! My Bee Balm grew out of control, which isn’t a bad thing. Bee Balm is the queen of the summer garden. Arguably the most used and useful native North American genus it has 16 or so representatives throughout North America. Discovered early on by European explorers it was presented to the famous Spanish physician and botanist Nicholas Monardes who is credited with the other name these plants are known for, Bergamot because they carry a similar aroma to Bergamot citrus oranges. This has led to the name being used interchangeably with the flowering plant. Historical use shows us that it was one of the tea substitutes during the American Revolution.
All of the species have a spicy herbal fragrance due to the presence of thymol in the oils produced by the plant. Read a mouth wash bottle and you’ll notice this compound is main ingredient in antibacterials. Early use as a bacterial inhibitor made it a flavoring and preservative of meat and a Native American stew ingredient. Tea brewed from these plants makes a wonderful hot or cold tea that settles the stomach. The plants have many other culinary uses as well. The flowers make a showy and tasty addition to salads and desserts. The genus was also known as Oswego Tea (Monarda didyma) and used by many tribes of Native Americans in sweat lodges and ceremonies. It was an important medicinal plant listed in the Matera Medica until the 20th century.
This easy to grow native occurs in every state except Alaska and Hawaii and also grows in the more temperate areas of Canada. The Bee Balm plants readily reseed themselves once established. In the prairie restoration world, these species are known as a “pioneer species” because they can quickly help reestablish a prairie matrix to disturbed areas. They are an important forage source of nectar for large Bombus native bees, Hawkmoths and the European honey bee. (bee balm) All members if the genus have tube-like flowers which these insects like to forage. They are an essential pollinator insect plant for moths and other butterfly species.
Many teas and recipes call for Bee Balm leaves or flowers.
A native version of Earl Gray. Mix 2 tablespoons dried flowers and leaves in a pot with a good English breakfast tea. Cover with boiling water and steep to taste for 3-5 minutes. Strain and serve with honey and lemon if desired.
Summer salads with added Monarda flowers and leaves impart an exotic, spicy note to them. They are a good foil for a fruit salad as well when dressed with a Monarda leaf/flower honey lemon dressing.
Caron Wenzel is an Environmental Educator, writer, and the owner of Blazing Star Inc. a 25 year old native plant seed nursery and consulting business. Blazing-Star.com.