Bee balm, a beautiful garden herb

Earlier this season, when my granddaughter asked me what my favorite garden flower was, I had to stop and think about it for a few seconds before telling her that my favorite is probably red bee balm. I was reminded of our conversation earlier this week. As I was working in the yard, the sun emerged from behind the clouds and I couldn’t help but marvel at how radiant and lovely the bee balm patch really is, when it’s in full bloom with sun shining brightly upon it.

A stand of bee balm can be a welcome, easy-to-grow addition to any flower garden. The blooms really are spectacular, and they remain for quite a long time. They’re wonderfully fragrant, too: spicy, sometimes reminding me of citrus, sometimes of oregano.

Bee balm (Monarda) is a long-blooming perennial which is easily grown in any garden soil. It will achieve heights of 3 feet or more and, when in full bloom, can be stunningly spectacular in most any landscape or flower garden location. Mine can be seen growing in a single, eye-catching cluster on a short, steep rise along the edge of the yard, amid large rhododendron bushes on one side and a cedar hedgerow on the other. The showy white flowers of queen of the meadow (Filipendula), which grows toward the bottom of the slope, enhance the beauty of the scarlet bee balm blooms, although the queen of the prairie will fade long before the bee balm does. Hostas, daylilies and several other perennial flowers, which grow at the foot of the hill, complete the picture. I have also seen attractive, crimson bee balm blossoms, like those that bring my little hillside to life in mid-summer, used delightfully among boulders in a rock garden and very appealingly, as a border planting along an old stone wall.

Don’t be frightened or turned off by the name, bee balm. You won’t have to contend with angry legions of swarming bees in your plantings, although you will often see bees working the aromatic blooms, just as you would see them among plantings of any other sweetly scented, brilliantly sunlit flowers. The real bonus, as if an ongoing show of such exotic-looking, sweet-smelling blooms weren’t incentive enough, is in the fact that gardeners can also expect their attractive, perfumed plantings to be frequented by nectar-seeking butterflies and hummingbirds.

Bee balm is a native mint; common to most of eastern North America. Its roots are creeping rhizomes, and as such, it tends to move outward in all directions, sometimes quite aggressively, once it becomes established. Most gardeners divide their plantings every three years or so, in the spring, to prevent overcrowding. I find it easiest to keep them where I want them by removing plants that are growing along the outermost edges of the planting. The roots are never very deep in the ground, so division and removal is relatively easy. I could plant them elsewhere, but I’ve run out of room. So, I give what I remove away.

The aboriginal Americans regarded bee balm as both a medicinal and a culinary herb. The leaves were brewed into teas, which were used to improve digestion and to treat coughs, colds, fever, anxiety, pain and discomfort, and melancholy.

Bee balm is sometimes referred to as “Oswego tea,” a name which dates back to the European settlers’ earliest encounters with the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) people, who were living in the region that now encompasses Oswego and the surrounding areas to the south and southeast of Lake Ontario. The Shakers, a Christian religious sect that branched off from the Quakers, had established a settlement there, and it is believed that this Shaker community was the first to learn about the uses and value of bee balm from the native people.

When the American colonists destroyed an entire shipment of English tea by, among other things, dumping it into Boston harbor in what became known as the Boston Tea Party – the culmination of a protest against the Tea Act of 1773 taxes imposed upon them by the British crown – the use of Oswego tea became popular. It was commonly used.

It is generally accepted that, sometime later, a John Bartram of Philadelphia sent bee balm seeds to England, where growing bee balm became quite fashionable. Oswego tea was soon enjoyed throughout much of Europe, where it was cultivated under the names gold Melissa and Indian nettle.

In fact, bee balm is related to the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea. And bee balm teas can be used in recipes that call for Earl Grey. The leaves can be dried and used alone or in combination with other herbs to create unique and refreshing herbal tea blends. The blooms can also be used, but sparingly, as they are strongly flavored. Flower heads steeped in liquid can then be made into jams and sorbets, as well. I am told, too, that the leaves can be used to really perk up the flavor of homemade apple jelly. And the petals can be used as a spicy garnish for salads and soups.