Monarda (Monarda spp.) is a shrubby perennial with very distinctive flowers native to the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada.
Flowers bloom July through August and consist of dense, riotous clusters of pink, red or purple. This plant is a member of the mint family, with its distinctive square stem and strong-smelling leaves. The lance-shaped leaves are opposite, toothed and rough on both sides. Slender rhizomes allow the plant to spread like crazy.
Common names Oswego tea, monarda, bergamot, horsemint, bee balm, beebalm
History and Folklore
An abundant plant in the Oswego region of New York, this plant was used as a tea by the Natives there and by the settlers to avoid taxation on tea by the British. Thus John Martram named this plant Oswego Tea.
The name bergamot was bestowed upon this plant because its scent faintly resembles that of a Bergamot Orange, which is unrelated to. Bergamot is used to flavor Earl Gray Tea.
The genus name, Monarda, honors Nicholas Monardes, a botanist who specialized in New World plants in the sixteenth century.
Propagate by division every few years. These are native American woodland plants and prefer a well-drained loam in full sun to partial shade. It is drought tolerant and prefers an alkaline soil. Bee balm reseeds readily and you will have to thin it regularly as overcrowded increases its susceptibility to disease and mildew. Make sure there is good circulation around plants to decrease the risk of mildew.
Harvesting and Preservation
Cut flowers when in full bloom, this will encourage more abundant blooming. Cut leaves as needed. Dry as any other herb.
Household and Decorative Use
Bee balm is one of the best plants to use for attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden.
The flowers and leaves are very good in potpourri and the oils are used in perfumery.
The entire plant above ground is edible and may be used as a potherb, in salads, as flavoring for cooked dishes. The unique flowers make an attractive garnish. The fresh or dried leaves make a lovely minty tea that can be served hot or iced.
Monarda has a high thymol content and, therefore, antibacterial properties. It also has antifungal and anesthetic properties. It can be used in mouthwashes, foot baths, and douches to relieve odor and/or itching. It is also useful as a wash for minor cuts and scrapes.
Bergamot tea is useful for fever and stomach problems and can be used as a gentle sleep aid. Simmer the leaves for 10 minutes to bring out their full flavor.
Spiritual and Magical Use
Monarda has been used for spells for developing psychic powers, protection, and fertility. Wild bergamot can also be used to help induce sweating at sweat lodges.