Growing, Harvesting, and Preserving Bee Balm
“…since plants are medicines, so too could their stories be healing.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
A member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family, Bee Balm (Monarda Fistulosa), is an incredibly fragrant and beautiful herb is one of my very favorite perennials to grow in my garden due to its medicinal properties, delectable minty-citrus aroma, and vibrant colors. There are many different varieties of bee balm available, with thistle-like flowers in shades of pink, red, and purple. The name, bee balm, is derived from its attractiveness to bees and other pollinators, but it is sometimes also referred to as bergamot (a nod to the bergamot orange), wild bergamot, crimson bee balm, scarlet Monarda, sweet leaf, Oswego tea, lemon mint, wound healer, or horsemint. In some parts of the world, it can grow wild and be foraged through the summer months. I consider bee balm a staple in every cottage, cut flower, and apothecary garden.
Commonly called "bergamot" and the “wound healer," bee balm an incredible fragrant (mildly minty) herb that is antiseptic in nature and is popular in cottage and butterfly gardens. In some parts of the world, it can grow wild and be foraged through the summer months.
Fun Fact! Bee balm leaves were used as a substitute for tea during the American Revolutionary War when black tea was scarce.
Beneficial Properties and Common Uses
Bee balm has many beneficial attributes including antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-nausea properties used to naturally support those with eczema, sore throats, cold sores, achy muscles, and congestion. As a diaphoretic, it is used to naturally aid in relieving fevers. Fresh leaves can also be chewed as a natural mouthwash.
Bee Balm In the Home and Garden
In the garden, bee balm attracts beneficial pollinators including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. I love having it readily available in my own backyard garden in case I cut or scratch myself while working in my garden. I simply tear a small portion of the stem off and apply the liquid inside directly to my scratch for instant cooling relief. Bee balm is a good garden companion to tomatoes, even improving their health and flavor.
In the kitchen, bee balm is the perfect addition to summer iced teas, lemonades, and cocktails. It is a wonderful substitute for mint both muddled into the drink and as garnish and is often used in hot teas and infusions as well. Added to salads, it gives greens a bold savory and minty boost. I most enjoy infusing honey with bee balm.
Around the home, fresh stalks can also be added to herbal shower bundles and are lovely, fragrant, and thoughtful additions to flower arrangements as a way to gift a beautiful and useful herb to someone you care about.
Growing Bee Balm
To grow bee balm, start by selecting a location with full sun to partial shade and well-draining soil. Plant bee balm in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. I recommend planting two seeds in each hole only about ¼ inch deep. Then cover the top with a very light layer of soil. Be patient with bee balm, as it can take anywhere from 10-30 days to germinate but will be well worth the wait in the end. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-10.
Bee balm is a perennial and will grow to be up to three feet tall! Simply transplant it into your garden once the threat of frost has passed. When transplanting, keep in mind that bee balm plant will grow larger each year. Because it self-seeds, bee balm can be considered a bit invasive, so a spacious garden bed or container is a good option. An organic fertilizer high in nitrogen and a big drink of water will help bee balm settle into its permanent living place in your garden and pollinators will be forever grateful.
My favorite varieties of bee balm are Wild Bergamot, Scarlet Bee Balm, Monarda Beauty of Cobham, Monarda Balmy Lilac, and Monarda Balmy Pink.
Harvesting Bee Balm
Water the soil around the plants regularly, being careful not to overwater. Avoid getting the leaves or flowers wet. Deadhead spent blooms to encourage the growth of new flowers and pinch back the stems to promote bushiness.
The best time of day to harvest bee balm is in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before it gets too hot. This will ensure that you capture the greatest flavor and highest potency of medicinal properties. To harvest, cut the entire stalk when the small flowers have appeared (or even before). If you plan to use them fresh over the next few days, simply drop them into a vase of clean, cool water in your kitchen to enjoy their delicate beauty in between uses.
Cut the entire plant back in the fall to prevent them from becoming too woody and to encourage new growth next year. Be sure to label the area to know where it will reemerge in the spring.
Preserving Bee Balm
If you want to dry them, tie a few stalks together into a small bunch and hang upside down in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location for a few weeks. (I typically let mine hang for three weeks and then check that the leaves crumble easily when pinched before breaking the flowers and leaves off the stems to jar.) Alternatively, you can use a dehydrator.
One last tip for my fellow-gardeners! Bee balm is often referred to as a wound healer for its natural antiseptic properties. If you cut or scratch yourself while working in your garden, tear small portion of the stem and apply the liquid inside directly to your minor wound for instant relief.
In the language of flowers, Monarda symbolizes compassion and sympathy, which is very fitting with all its soothing properties and uses. A few bee balm stalks are a lovely and thoughtful addition to flower arrangements too and a way to gift a beautiful and useful herb to a loved one.
If you are interested in learning how to make bee-balm infused honey, CLICK HERE.
Have a convinced you to grow bee balm this year?