Bee balm, Oswego tea, bergamot – all are common names for Monarda didyma, a showy native American herb. Each name tells a tale. ‘Bee balm’ attests to the way bees hover around the bright tubular flowers. ‘Oswego tea’ tells us it was medicinally used by the Oswego Indians of the Great Lakes area. ‘Bergamot’ reminds us the leaves were once used to flavor China tea when true bergamot (a member of the citrus family) wasn’t available.
Bee balm is a perennial that grows to about 2-3 feet high with lance-shaped leaves. In spring to summer it forms clusters of aromatic two-inch tubular flowers that remind me of exploding fireworks. They are much enjoyed by hummingbirds and pollinating insects. The flower color ranges from almost white, through pink, to deep scarlet. Flowers from this herb can be cut and enjoyed indoors.
Bee balm grows best in Texas with some afternoon shade. Keep regularly watered to maintain healthy growth. Mulch around the base of the plant to help it survive through the high temperatures of summer. Avoid growing it in deep shade or where it will be too crowded because it is susceptible to powdery mildew.
Deadhead this flowering herb during the growing season to encourage it to produce more blooms. Clip the stalks to the ground in late fall. As with many perennial herbs, bee balm should be divided every 2-3 years. Bee balm has several uses in the home. The fresh or dried leaves and flowers can be used in herbal teas or as a flavoring in green or fruit salads. A tea made from bee balm was sometimes used to help deal with a variety of digestive complaints. And of course the dried leaves and flowers make a pleasant addition to potpourri.