“Unmoved I saw you blooming,
Your crimson cap uplooming…”
John Burroughs, the poet who wrote “To the Bee Balm”, apparently passed by some of it one day without even noticing, until it was pointed out to him by his lady love. She must have been very distracting indeed, because bee balm usually has no problem attracting attention.
Monarda, or bee balm, is a member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family of plants. It is native if not endemic to the continental United States, with species growing in each of the lower forty-eight states. In all, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes thirty-seven subspecies of bee balm. Texas is especially bee balm friendly, hosting twelve species of the plant.
Monarda is named after botanist Nicolás Monardes. Another of the plant’s names, Oswego Tea, derives from its use by midwestern Native Americans as a flavoring and medicinal herb. The nickname “bergamot” comes from the plant's distinctively scented and flavored essential oil, which resembles that of the unrelated bergamot orange.
Plant stems are square, grooved, and fairly rigid, although some taller varieties may require staking. Leaves occur in opposite pairs and are lance shaped and toothed. Bee balm flowers in shades of red, pink, and lilac. The showy ‘flowers’ actually emerge out of pale green bracts as large heads that contain twenty to fifty narrow, tubular florets; each floret has a narrow upper lip and wider bottom one.
Bee balm is an adaptable grower in USDA Hardiness Zones four through nine. It prefers sunny sites but will tolerate some shade; in shady sites, however, the plant may become rangy and flower sparingly. Well drained soil (pH 6.5) and moderate moisture are preferred; overly boggy or dry conditions can dispose the plant to mildew or rust, and slugs may be troublesome when roots are persistently moist and cool.
Bee balm can be grown from seed (sown in spring). It is more often propagated by cuttings from its spreading, rhizomatous roots (in summer) or simple division (best done in spring). Given the plant’s propensity to be invasive, division of the plant will be almost inevitable for anyone growing the plant successfully. Division will benefit the plant when the center of the clump becomes dried out or hollow. A distance of eighteen inches between plants is suggested to maximize air circulation and prevent mildew. Mulching or humus dressing in spring or summer is recommended, but over-fertilizing may make plants rangy.
There are both perennial and annual species of bee balm; commonly sold garden varieties are perennial. Heights of varying species range from fourteen inches or so for the newer dwarf varieties to forty-eight inches or more for the taller varieties. Bee balm usually flowers in July and August. It is deer-resistant.
Bee balm’s rigid stems make it useful for cut flowers, and the flowers can be dried successfully.
As a companion plant, bee balm is said to benefit tomatoes and other vegetables by attracting pests away from them.
Bee balm is attractive to more than pests. It is also a magnet for hummingbirds, butterflies, and, obviously, bees, so much so that you can sometimes hear bee balm buzzing before you see it or smell it. This 'animal magnetism' is due in large part to the plant's strong and distinctive fragrance, described as a combination of mint and oregano.
The substance that is responsible for this fragrance, thymol, is also responsible for the bracing flavor of ‘Oswego Tea’. Earl Grey Tea, which is bergamot-flavored, is made with essence of bergamot orange, not bee balm.
Medicinally, bee balm is reputed to have the same effects as other members of the mint family; stomach soother, cooling stimulant, and antiseptic.
By the end of his poem, John Burroughs was a convert to bee balm’s “brave and festive look”. Little did he know that good looks were only the tip of the bee balm ice berg.