The beautiful and useful North American wildflower Monarda (Bee Balm) is the perfect addition to any homesteader’s garden. With its daisy-like shape and vibrant colors, and its utility as an herb, this terrific plant is great complement to any herb garden or foundation planting.
Bee balm is resilient and beautiful, making it a favorite for beginner and expert gardeners alike. Bee balm is low maintenance as long as you can create the simple environment it needs.
As bee balm grows, the culinary and medicinal properties will make it your new garden staple. You might even discover a few unexpected uses for it as well.
An American Native and a Gardener’s Favorite
Bee Balm, sometimes called Oswego tea, is a native plant that is found in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. It is often found growing near stream banks in the wild.
However, although it is wild, the plant was also cultivated for its beautiful flowers and ease of growth as well.
There are now many garden cultivars of this popular perennial, and either the natives or the store-bought varieties can thrive in any garden or home with the right care.
If you do decide to transplant some bee balm from the wild, make sure you follow local laws and regulations, and harvest it sustainably.
Leave enough of the plant behind to sustain the local colony; you could also just harvest the seeds and germinate them at home as well.
Bee Balm is really easy to find in most garden stores, however, so don’t wear yourself out foraging for it in the woods!
Growing this plant will be worth the effort, since you’ll soon enjoy not only its beauty and fragrance, but its beneficial properties as well.
What Monarda Flower is Right for My Garden?
Several species of bee balm thrive in the American wilderness. So, the first step towards a picturesque garden is deciding which species to plant.
The most popular bee balm flowers are scarlet, spotted, and lemon. However, there are dozens more species blooming across North America that you can consider.
Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda Didyma), famous for its vivid crimson color, is a versatile, aromatic flower. It grows in wet, northern climates and flowers between late June and early August.
These plants soak up direct sunlight. They are scentless but have a sweet nectar that hummingbirds can’t resist.
Just be wary that they can spread quite quickly through a flowerbed and are susceptible to powdery mildew.
Spotted Beebalm (Monarda Punctata) is an aromatic perennial. The flowers are typically yellow with small purple spots on the petals, but they can also be white, pink, or purple.
Spotted bee balm thrives in prairies and meadows, so it’ll be easy to find in Texas, Illinois, and many fields in between. This Monarda has a wide range of growth.
It can grow between only six inches and up to three feet tall. Unlike its scentless scarlet sister, spotted bee balm smells like fresh oregano, making it very popular among chefs.
Lemon Beebalm (Monarda Citriodora) is a small, lavender flower that grows in arid southwestern climates, usually in rocky or sandy soil.
Despite the purple color, this Beebalm received its nickname because of its distinct citrusy scent. This scent makes it the most versatile bee balm in the kitchen.
Lemon Beebalm can be used in salads, wines, and even desserts. It usually grows between one and two feet. With proper watering, it can flower from late summer to early October.
The sweet nectar will attract butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden, and ecologists recognize it as especially valuable to bees.
What Soil Should I use?
A moist soil is always a good choice for bee balm. However, remember that these plants don’t like damp soil, so good drainage is a must.
They are not particularly fussy, but proper air circulation will help prevent powdery mildew.
Also, it is important to give each seed its space. Leave an 18–24-inch gap between each seed you plant.
pH is the scale on which the acidity or basicity of a solution is measured. The scale ranges from one to fourteen.
One is the most acidic, fourteen is the most basic, and seven is neutral. Proper soil pH is necessary to any plant’s growth. Bee Balm thrives at a pH between 6 and 6.7.
This pH level is slightly acidic. Remember, Bee Balm needs moisture, but does not do well in overly wet conditions.
Mild acids, such as salts, absorb water, so a little acidity is helpful. Too much however, can be destructive.
Should I Fertilize Bee balm?
Yes! Bee balm thrives when it can soak up nutrients from organic matter. Mix a few inches of compost or fertilizer into the soil when planting seeds.
These extra nutrients will give the plant an extra boost for survival in the first one to two years. Even once the plant matures, refreshing the soil with compost will benefit it greatly.
Hardiness refers to a plant’s ability to grow in certain conditions. Since bee balm grows in a wide variety of climates, it is a tough plant that can survive in extreme conditions in most parts of the United States.
A hardiness zone is a geographic region defined by the climatic conditions that determine which plants can grow and survive.
Zone temperatures are based on minimum average temperatures. The United States contains thirteen hardiness zones.
These zones range in temperature from as low as -60℉ (-51℃) to the milder 70℉ (21℃). Bee balm grows in ranges 3-9.
This means it can survive temperatures as low as -35℉ (-37.2℃). Bee balm needs a lot of sunlight, so it’s no surprise that it can handle high temperatures as well.
Since Bee Balm is Edible, How Should I Prepare It?
Bee Balm has a wide range of flavors that make it a delightful ingredient. The refreshing minty taste works in a wide variety of dishes.
But remember, only eat the part of bee balm that is above ground. Do not eat the roots or shoots.
Bee balm is perfect for a late summer Watermelon Mint and Feta Salad. This recipe is ideal for chefs new to incorporating bee balm into dishes.
When you make this salad in a bowl, you just have to mix the petals with the other ingredients.
The rich colors will even make your salad look good. If you are looking for a little zest, chop the petals of spotted bee balm into fine pieces, and sprinkle it into a salad.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, try a lemon balm Bundt cake. This cake is moist and easy to make. It uses Lemon Bee Balm to give a subtle, herbal lemon taste. If you want a more overt lemon flavor, you can add zest from one lemon.
Bee Balm Tea was a favorite among Native tribes wherever it grew. When the English settlers arrived, they too took a liking to it.
During the American Revolution, colonists drank Bee Balm Tea instead of English tea after the Boston Tea Party dumped the English tea into the Atlantic Ocean.
Bee Balm tea is delicious, aromatic, and smooth. In addition to its minty taste, it can also reduce anxiety, calm nerves, and settle digestion.
To make iced bee balm tea, place the petals in a clean jar and fill it with filtered water. Put on the lid and stir well.
Place the closed jar in the fridge for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. After 24 hours, strain the tea through a coffee filter. The tea will taste fresh and have a pink pastel tinge.
Does Bee Balm Have Any Medicinal Properties?
Yes, bee balm has a long history as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments. Prior to colonization, Bee balm was a popular ingredient among Native Americans because of its healing properties.
Native Americans used Bee Balm to treat illnesses, wounds, and improve digestion.
According to the Peterson Field Guide Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Native Americans used bee balm tea to treat illnesses like colds, fever, and stomach aches, and the herb was also believed to be useful in treating muscle spasms as well.
Here are some of the ways bee balm can be used as a remedy today.
Monarda is usually used to treat nausea, sore throats, and headaches. Bee Balm tea, known as “Oswego tea,” after the Oswego tribe that introduced the brew to English settlers, can reduce fever as well. It is popular among women for reducing cramps during menstruation.
The tea is also easy to make, all you have to do is boil water in a kettle, fill the infuser with leaves and place it in the mug, and pour the boiled water over the leaves. Do some mixing until the air bubbles disappear. Let the tea steep for around 20 minutes before removing the infuser.
Ingested spotted bee balm treats problems with the upper respiratory tract. If you have a cold, spotted bee balm also encourages perspiration.
Bee balm has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It is an effective treatment for minor wounds such as sunscreen or insect bites.
For treating wounds, make the same tea that you would make if you had a fever. Instead of drinking it, soak a cloth in the tea and use it as a compressor.
Bee balm will also reduce itching and scratching. You can even use lemon bee balm for cold sores. All you need to do is crush the leaves and bind them to the sore.
Oswego tea doesn’t just relieve illness. It also helps with digestion. Native Americans used bee balm tea to treat an upset stomach, nausea, and relieve gas.
Even many modern digestive medications contain lemon bee balm. Biologist, a pill used to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in Germany, contains bee balm among its natural ingredients.
Note: Doctors recommend practicing caution before ingesting bee balm if you are pregnant or have thyroid problems; as always, consult a doctor regarding the best way to treat any illness.
What Should I Look Out for When I’m Growing Bee Balm?
Overall, bee balm is one of the lowest-maintenance perennials you could ever plant in your garden.
But there are some potential problems gardeners should be aware of. Luckily, most of these problems are identifiable and have easy solutions.
Various wildlife love Bee balm. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees may be welcomed guests in your garden; however, you may attract some unwanted visitors. Spider mites, stalk borers, and thrips also like to make a home in bee balm flowers.
Spider mites suck juices out of leaves and spin super-fine webs on the plant. They will leave unsightly yellow spots along the leaves. Insecticidal soaps or neem oil will eliminate spider mites.
Stalk borer larvae tunnel into the stem of the plant. If you see a hole with a yellowish border in the stem, cut the stalk at least one inch below the hole. Look into the hole.
If you see larvae, destroy the stalk. If your plant begins wilting before you notice the larvae, it will most like die, so early prevention is key.
Thrips act similarly to spider mites, except they do not leave webs. Neem oil or spinosad will just about eradicate the population.
The biggest hazard to Monarda’s growth is powdery mildew. Powdery Mildew is a common, easily recognizable fungal disease. An infected Monarda will have a white coating on its usually vibrant petals.
Plants are most vulnerable in the late spring and early summer, when the temperature is increasing, and the humidity is high.
Sunlight, healthy soil, and the right amount of moisture will make Monarda more resistant to powdery mildew. If one of your flowers is infected, sodium bicarbonate can act as a fungicide.
Sodium bicarbonate is a water-soluble salt. Mix the salt with water in a spray bottle and spray on the infected plant once every one or two weeks. It also helps if you water the base of the plant instead of the leaves.
The biggest risk that comes along with growing Bee Balm is not disease or pests. Rather, bee balm can rapidly spread and grow out of control like a weed and can become an unwanted guest in your garden.
Left unchecked, this plant can spread quickly through the garden and completely overtake it. For this reason, some classify it as an invasive species.
Bee balm propagates via rhizomes. Rhizomes act as runners that spread deep in the soil to produce new shoots. You may plant Bee Balm in one place and be surprised to find it growing elsewhere.
Bee balm has to be properly divided. This should be done in early spring when plants thaw and new shoots emerge.
Dig up the mother plant and its roots. With a sharp knife, cut off the new shoots. You can replant them or throw them away, depending on how much you want in your garden.
Growing Bee Balm Indoors
Not having a garden or a yard shouldn’t stop anyone from growing Monarda. In fact, this tough flower can grow in containers indoors.
In fact, some gardeners prefer growing the plant in their homes because the container prevents overspreading. The process is similar to growing the plant outside, with a few adjustments.
What Pot to Use
Bee balm can grow up to four feet tall, so you’ll need a large pot. Use a five to ten-gallon pot with proper drainage. Fill the pot about ⅓ of the way full with soil. You want the soil to be evenly moist, but make sure the excess water drains.
When and Where
Bee balm loves sunlight. When bee balm is planted outside, it can thrive with a bit of shade.
However, indoors, you need to ensure that the plant has as much exposure to sunlight as possible. Place the pot near a window that catches plenty of sunlight.
Although your home will be warm enough for bee balm all year round, sunlight is an important factor for when to grow bee balm. Your house’s heating may keep the plant warm and toasty in winter, but days are short.
The right time to plant bee balm indoors is whenever you would’ve planted it outside. Usually, this means eight to ten weeks after the spring thaw begins.
Are There Any Other Uses for Bee Balm?
Bee Balm has some other surprising uses outside of the kitchen or care room.
Bee Balm the Repellent
Monarda is a member of the mint family. Although the scents delight humans, some creatures can’t stand them.
Bee Balm is a natural mosquito repellent. Monarda citriodora contains citronella, a natural mosquito repellent.
A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food History found that essential oil derived from Monarda bradburiana repels yellow fever mosquitos.
The amount of bradburnia essential oil needed to repel mosquitos was only marginally higher than the amount of DEET needed.
However, you don’t need to harvest your bee balm and extract the essential oils in order to keep pests away. Bee balm repels mosquitoes as it lives and grows in your garden.
Bee Balm for Your Loved Ones
Bee balm flowers are bright and dramatic. A patch of blooming scarlet bee balms can look like a miniature firework show. In various Native American lore, bee balm symbolized compassion or good luck.
A bouquet of bee balm is a thoughtful, unexpected gift for the ones you love. You can give it to your partner on Valentine’s Day, or a parent on their birthday.
It is not as commonly given as roses, which makes it a surprise for the recipient. Small potted bee balm makes the perfect centerpiece.
On Your Way to the Perfect Homesteader’s Garden
Since bee balm can survive a wide range of conditions, you might want to grow different species to give your garden some variety.
It helps to search which bee balm species are native to your area. Pick a few that you like and get planting. Just don’t forget to space them out!
Roses and peonies are common companion flowers. Scarlet bee balm would certainly pop among the softer pink blossoms.
You can also grow bee balm alongside herbs such as basil, thyme, and parsley. Plant the bee balm at the center of the garden surrounded by the shorter annual herbs.
Indoor bee balm will light up any room. So, wherever you plant bee balm on your homestead, as long as you follow this simple guide you will have popping annual blooms and no shortage of practical uses.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.