Bee Balm

In previous posts about herbs we have referred to our herbal blends as “herbal teas” or even just “teas.” This is technically incorrect since tea is made exclusively from the leaves of a single plant. Whether you are into white, green, oolong, or black tea it does not matter. All true teas are made from the leaves of Camellia Sinensis. The differences in the teas results from the way the leaves of the plant are processed rather than from using leaves from different plants. We will probably delve into that plant and its processing and use more in the future but for now just note that although we use the term herbal tea or even just tea, unless we are using actual tea leaves from the tea plant we are in fact making what is called a tisane. Now that we have that off our chest lets get on to the next herb.

Another plant which made its way to our new home from the old home is bee balm. We planted it along the back of our small yard at the old house and over time it took over a large patch. When we left the old house we divided a small amount of the plant and quickly put it in the ground here at the new location. It is a stunning flower to have around as they look like exploding fireworks. This is also another plant that is simple to grow and readily available so is a good candidate for the novice gardener.

We were not able to locate a picture of our Bee Balm in all of our pictures. Since this is the wrong time of year for taking pictures of our plants you can have a look at The Old Farmer’s Almanac growing guide for some pictures. They really are a beautiful and unique flower.

  • Common Name: Bee Balm
  • Scientific Name: Monarda Didyma or Monarda Fistulosa
    • There are many varieties within the Monarda family besides Didyma and Fistulosa but these seem to be the most commonly used in herbal preparations.
    • Monarda comes from the name of the Spanish botanist who first described the plant in 1569, Nicolás Bautista Monardes.
  • Family: Lamiaceae (Mint) pronounced lay-me-ace-ee-i
  • Common Medicinal Uses: WebMD does not list any uses for which there exist sufficient study for them to call the claims valid. Ohio Northern University does list the plant as a known antibacterial due to the presence of Thymol which is the antibacterial used in mouthwash. (https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-169/oswego-tea and https://webstu.onu.edu/garden/node/309)
  • Purported Herbal Actions: Most herbal sources we found do not list this plant in their materia medica. Some sources list the plant as antibacterial, antiseptic, a mild stimulant, and carminative. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarda)
  • Parts Used: Leaves
  • Preparations: Tea, Infusion  
  • Description: Bee Balm is an upright perennial herbaceous plant with long oval deep green leaves. The stem of Bee Balm is square as you would expect of a plant of the Mint (Lamiaceae) family. The plant produces flowers in late Spring to late Summer and the flowers resemble exploding fireworks. Depending on the variety the flowers can be various shades of red, pink, or purple. Both bees and hummingbirds love the flowers. The mature plant reaches 2-4.

Bee Balm is native to North America and was unknown to Europeans until the colonization period. This probably explains the lack of information on traditional herbal sites and books since they draw mostly from ancient Eastern medical traditions and this would not have been a plant known to those practitioners. (https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=MODI)

Native Americans, depending on the tribe, used bee balm teas to treat cough and cold, stomach ailments, headache, and fever. Infusions and poultices were used topically to treat minor wounds. Infusions were used for dental treatment and maintenance. Tea made from Bee Balm is sometimes called Oswego tea because colonists observed Native Americans using it along the Oswego river.

It is reported that colonists began to drink Oswego tea as a replacement for the black tea they typically drank as a way to avoid the British tea taxes and the lack of availability that resulted following the “tea parties” of the early revolutionary days.

The leaves have a similar flavor to Oregano and it is sometimes called “Sonoran Oregano” since many Western Native American tribes used the leaves much like Oregano. You can try substituting Bee Balm for Oregano in your favorite recipes.

It is uncommon to find this herb available from typical herb suppliers so it may be a good candidate to to grow for yourself.

  • Safety and Contraindications: Unknown
  • Cultivation: Bee Balm will grow perennially in most of North America. It can be started from seed in early Spring or it can be propagated by division relatively easily. Bee Balm naturally likes stream banks so very moist and sunny locations are ideal. To extend the blooming season cut back the plants to 3 inches after the first bloom and as soon as you see the first yellow leaves. They will then grow throughout the summer and bloom again in the fall.

As a member of the mint family Bee Balm will readily spread on its own so be careful of where you plant it. It is a very shallow rooted plant, so it is simple to pull runners to keep it contained.  If it’s at the edge of a lawn, mowing will also keep it contained.

 

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