First of all, do you see the Muppety resemblance?
In my opinion, bee balm (Monarda spp.) is an underused gem in the herbal world. There are roughly 16 species of Monarda, all native to the US and Canada. Common names include wild oregano, wild bergamot, Oswego tea, horsemint and more. You may have seen bee balm growing in home gardens, or for sale at a local nursery-- and for good reason. As one might surmise from its common name, bee balm is an excellent supporter of pollinators like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and hummingbird moths. Its bright, showy flowers make it a superstar in the native garden.
Blossom color varies depending on the species; Monarda didyma (pictured) is a taller plant with striking red blooms. Monarda fistulosa has lavender-colored petals, while Monarda punctata has stunning spotted flowers highlighted by white or pink upper leaves. Look for M. punctata, M. fistulosa and more at Lockwood's Garden Center in Hamburg, NY.
Monarda was named after a 16th-century Spanish physician named Nicolas Monardes. Monardes is credited for writing the first herbal medicine book about plants of the New World. The title of his seminal work translates to "Joyful News out of the New Found World". Interestingly, Monardes never set foot in the Americas. He learned about these New World herbs on the docks of Seville, talking with merchants, soldiers, government officials, missionaries and women returning to Spain.
Monardes' informants undoubtedly learned much about Monarda from America's native people. it was used medicinally by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Hopi, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Menominee, Ojibwa, Winnebago and more. Their uses for Monarda are still practiced today.
Like many other mint family plants, Monarda leaves and flowers are deliciously aromatic. According to clinical herbalist Rosalee de la Foret, "All [Monardaspecies] be used interchangeably, with the taste of the plant giving us insight into its potency. Generally, the spicier the plant, the more potent it is." Monarda fistulosa, M. punctata, M. menthifolia, and M. didyma are the most common species used medicinally. How convenient that several of these are common garden varieties!
Like other aromatic herbs, Monarda's essential oils support healthy digestion, easing bloating, cramping, and other discomforts. Bee balm is also an excellent supporter during cold and flu season. Hot Monarda tea can loosen congestion in the upper respiratory tract, and Monarda tea or honey can soothe a sore throat.
Aromatic plants are also antimicrobial. Both Monarda and thyme (cousins in the mint family) contain high concentrations of thymol, an effective antibacterial agent used in oral care products. Drinking Monarda tea can ease mouth infections, or simply freshen the breath. Bee balm is also strongly antifungal. Internally, it is highly effective for candida overgrowth and vaginal yeast infections. For topical infections, de la Foret recommends applying the tea to infected areas, as well as taking the tincture or tea internally.
Herbalist Matthew Wood points out that, like its relative lemon balm, Monarda is a gentle nervous system relaxant. Wood recommends it for those experiencing anxiety or nervousness.
Use bee balm any way you like! It's delicious and safe for regular use. Try a making hot or iced tea, Infused vinegar or honey, tincture, or infused oil or witch hazel for topical use. The dried herb in an excellent and native culinary spice.
What is my favorite herb-infused vinegar I've ever made? Bee balm leaf + flower! Not only is it deliciously aromatic, but using red Monarda didyma results in a stunning magenta vinegar-- even if the flowers are the minority of your plant material. Here is a simple recipe for Herb Infused Vinegar.
Are bee balm cultivars safe to use? In my experience, if the bee balm plant smells delicious and potent, it is fine to use internally. This is not the case for cultivars of all medicinal plants, such as yarrow. (I do not use colorful yarrow cultivars internally due to higher concentrations of an unsavory alkaloid).
Use Monarda in moderation if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Bee balm enjoys consistent moisture and part-sun to full-sun exposure, though I have seen it thrive in part-shade. It is prone to mildew, and some species and cultivars are more prone than others. In my experience, M. didymaholds out much better than M. fistulosa-- but both are worth having in my garden.
When I start seeing signs of mildew, I simply cut back the tall stalks and use the soft aerial parts for food and medicine. I toss the tough central stalks and mildewy leaves into the compost. Like other mint family members, your Monarda will leaf out again relatively quickly, if it is happy. The new growth will hopefully be mildew free-- at least for awhile. According to Seattle Times garden writer Valerie Eston, growing Monarda in the moist soil it prefers results in less mildew, ironically.
de la Foret, Rosalee. http://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/bee-balm.html
Easton, Valerie. "Bee balm, bergamot or horsemint; it’s all pretty and healing." Seattle Times. July 2, 2011.
Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. 1979.
Rose, Kiva. "Monarda." http://bearmedicineherbals.com/monarda.html
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
"Nicolas Monardes." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicol%C3%A1s_Monardes