GROW: Bee Balm
Several years ago, I spent the hours I had designated as reading time out on the deck, making Vitamin D, watching a hummingbird dutifully maintain his territory, which was an 8-foot bed of bee balm gloriously blooming in late July and August. I didn’t get very far in my book that summer because I was fascinated by the determination of this one bird. As he would probe the flowers for nectar, other hummers would fly into the patch only to be chased away. The invading hummers seem to become more strategic, flying to the leaves and perching on bent stems or the tip of an unopened flower bud, trying to hide from the Hummer-in-Charge. Sometimes the resident hummer would hear them and immediately chase them out but every now and then, one of the invading hummers would get to sip a bit of nectar before being discovered. It captivated me and though bee balm had lots of visiting bees and occasional butterflies, it was the hummers who clearly valued my cultivation of native bee balm.
Speaking of bees, I discovered another amazing fact about pollinator & flower relationships. Bee balm is a native North American plant and many of the native bees enjoy it. But European honeybees have a difficult and sometimes impossible time utilizing bee balm - their proboscis - the straw-like tongue used for sucking liquids - is not quite long enough to penetrate the bee balm flower. Native bees, like the sweat bees and the bumble bees, have no problems.
Attracting hummingbirds and bees are two excellent reasons to plant bee balm in your garden. But there are other reasons. The large leaves can be used in the kitchen; the taste is similar to oregano but spicier. The flowers and leaves make a delightful spicy tea that can both calm and stimulate our nervous systems.
Medicinal Uses for Bee Balm
North American indigenous groups have a long history of using bee balm medicinally. As a spicy carminative, it can be used as a tea to help with digestive complaints like gas and bloating. Its anti-fungal properties have specifically been used to address vaginal yeast infections, and its antimicrobial properties make it useful for urinary tract infections.
Bee balm has a high amount of thymol, a chemical that is highly antispetic and that gives thyme its flavor. A strong infusion of leaves and flowers, or a diluted beebalm tincture are ideal for making a mouthwash for infected gums and sore throats. Many commercial toothpastes include thymol extract. An infusion can also be made to wash wounds and cuts. Infusing honey with flowers and leaves makes a delightfully spicy sweetener but also an antiseptic liquid bandage for burns.
I use beebalm for cold and flu season, making a variety of preparations to have ready when the virus hits. Beebalm is diffusive and diaphoretic and “moves the fire out’ according to herbalist Matthew Wood. That makes it helpful for fevers, allowing the heat to move up through the pores of our skin.
HERBAL PREPARATIONS: Tea, infused oil & honey, syrup, elixir, tincture, oxymels
How to Grow Bee Balm
Dried bee balm is usually not available in retail so you will need to grow your own supply.
PLANT NAME: Bee-Balm (Monarda spp.; fistulosa, didyma, punctata)
HEIGHT: 2 - 5 feet
WIDTH/SPREAD: 12 inches; Grows in clumps that spread quickly
SPACING: 18 - 24 inches between plants
LIFE CYCLE: Herbaceous perennial; some species are annuals
MATURITY: 2-3 years
HARDINESS ZONES: 4 - 9
PREFERRED GROWING CONDITIONS
SUN: Full sun to partial afternoon shade in hot regions; species specific
SOIL: Well-drained garden loam amended with compost for fistulosa & didyma; loose sandy soil for punctutata
WATER: Abundant moisture but not constantly wet; can tolerate some drought
CONTAINER: Prefers open meadows & space but can grow in a wide container
Stratify seeds for 3 months before sowing in early spring.Tip cuttings can be done in the early summer, rooted and then transplanted in early fall but success rate is lower than seeds. Root divisions have a higher rate of success.
Pinch back spring leave growth if you want to encourage it to spread.
Spreads easily and quickly by underground rhizomes (roots) so decide before planting if you want to control it.
GERMINATION TEMPERATURE & PERIOD: Warm soil; Sporadic germination over 2 - 3 weeks
BLOOMS: Unique flowers bloom early to late summer and attracts hummingbirds and native bees. First-year plants may not bloom until the following season.
CARE: Consistent watering to maintain blooms and vigor. Allow for ample air circulation to avoid powdery mildew. Divide every 3 years to help control its spread.
PESTS: No major pests but can be attacked by stalk borers, spider mites and thrips.
DISEASE: Powdery Mildew; select mildew-resistant varieties or provide a lot of air flow around plants