Monarda (bee balm, horsemint, oswego tea, or bergamot) is a genus consisting of roughly 16 species of erect, herbaceous annual or perennial plants in the Lamiaceae, indigenous to North America. Ranging in height from 1 to 3 feet (0.2 to 0.9 m), the plants have an equal spread, with slender and long-tapering (lanceolate) leaves; the leaves are opposite on stem, smooth to nearly hairy, lightly serrated margins, and range from 3 to 6 inches (7 to 14 cm) long. In all species, the leaves, when crushed, exude a spicy, highly fragrant oil. Of the species listed, M. didyma (Oswego Tea) contains the highest concentration of this oil.
The genus was named for Nicolás Monardes who wrote a book in 1574 describing plants found in the New World.
Several Bee Balm species (Monarda fistulosa and Monarda didyma)
have a long history of use as a medicinal plants by many Native Americans including the Blackfeet, Menominee, Objibwe, Winnebago and others. The Blackfeet Indians recognized the strong antiseptic action of these plants, and used poultices of the plant for skin infections and minor wounds. A tea made from the plant was also used to treat mouth and throat infections caused by dental caries
. Bee Balm is the natural source of the antiseptic Thymol
, the primary active ingredient in modern commercial mouthwash
formulas. The Winnebago used a tea made from bee Balm as a general stimulant. Bee Balm was also used as a carminative
herb by Native Americans to treat excessive flatulence.
Although somewhat bitter due to the thymol content in the plants leaves and buds, the plant has a very similar flavor to oregano, to which it is closely related. Bee Balm was traditionally used by Native Americans as a seasoning for wild game, particularly birds. The plants are widespread across North America and can be found in moist meadows, hillsides, and forest clearings up to 5,000 feet in elevation.
Flowers, species, cultivars
Monarda species include annual and perennial upright growing herbaceous plants with lanceolate to ovate shaped leaves. The flowers are tubular with bilateral symmetry and bilabiate; with upper lips narrow and the lower ones broader and spreading or deflexed. The flowers are single or in some cultivated forms double, generally hermaphroditic with 2 stamens. Plant bloom in mid to late-summer and the flowers are produced in dense profusion at the ends of the stem and/or in the stem axils, the flowers typically are in crowded into head-like clusters with leafy bracts. Flower colors vary, with wild forms of the plant having crimson-red to red, pink and light purple. M. didyma
has bright, carmine red blossoms; M. fistulosa
-- the "true" wild bergamot -- has smokey pink flowers. M. citriodora
and M. pectinata
have light lavender to lilac-colored blooms and have slightly decreased flower quantities. Both species are commonly referred to as "Lemon Mint." There are over 50 commercial cultivars and hybrids, ranging in color from candy-apple red to pure white to deep blue, but these plants tend to be smaller than wild species, and often developed to combat climatic or pest conditions. "M.didyma" species can grow up to 6 feet tall. Seed collected from hybrids — as with most hybridized
plants — does not produce identical plants to the parent.
plants prefer full sun and moist yet well-drained soil. Plants established in partial shade or filtered sun have higher incidences of rapid horizontal spread and flower less. An aggressive plant in the South-eastern United States, Bergamots can grow in a wide variety of soil conditions. Powdery mildew, rust, and (rarely) tobacco mosaic viruses disrupt established plants on occasion, but the plants are in general highly resistant to most wilts and viruses and are not easily damaged. Used most frequently in areas in need of naturalization
is often used in beds and borders to encourage and increase the appearance of hummingbirds, pollinating insects, and because of oils present in its roots is sometimes used to companion plant around small vegetable crops susceptible to subterranean pests. While seed should be stratified briefly before starting, seed may be cast directly or started in coldframes or greenhouses at soil temperatures approaching 70° Fahrenheit. Generally, propagation
occurs by hardwood and softwood cuttings, root cuttings, layering, and division; the latter, quite frequently, is the most popular method out of necessity: the plant should be divided every 3 to 5 years to reduce spread, keep the central core of the plant healthy, preclude root rot, and improve air circulation about the foliage.
Bee balm is considered a good plant to grow with tomatoes, ostensibly improving both health and flavor. It also is a good companion plant in general, attracting pollinators and some predatory/parasitic insects that hunt garden pests.
Monarda species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including case-bearers of the genus Coleophora including C. heinrichella (feeds exclusively on M. fistulosa), C. monardae (feeds exclusively on Monarda spp) and C. monardella (feeds exclusively on M. fistulosa).
The Bergamot of the Monarda species should not be confused with the popular flavoring used in Earl Grey tea. Dried leaves may be used for teas or aromatherapies, but the odor is subtly different from Citrus bergamia, the Earl Grey flavoring. For medicinal usage, Monarda has been known to treat headaches and fevers by infusing crushed leaves in boiling water.