Bea balm is the common name for monarda, a perennial herb native to North America and a favorite of bees, which frequently results in references to "bee balm". The flowers appear in midsummer in shades of lavender, pink, purple and a scarlet red that hummingbirds and butterflies find irresistible. These herbaceous plants are members of the mint family and are recognized by their ragged, spiky flower heads. These contain many tiny tubular flowers that grow into whorls on top of tall square stems. The dark green leaves of this plant are toothed, hairy and very aromatic.
This plant is also known as Oswego tea, because the Oswego Indians introduced it to American colonists during the 17th century. The colonists enjoyed its minty taste so much that they used it as a substitute for black tea during the Revolutionary War. It is also called wild bergamot for its strong citrus scent, which is similar to the bergamot orange. The flavor is also said to strongly resemble oregano.
While bea balm can be grown from seed, the plants will often be smaller and not as showy as those propagated by division. If started early enough, they will bloom during their first summer and will become larger and more vigorous each year. It can be grown virtually anywhere, as long as it has good air circulation to reduce its tendency toward powdery mildew. This can be a problem in areas where the humidity is very high or there is frequent rainfall.
The stems of this plant grow and spread underground to develop into new plants each spring. They often appear in areas where they are not always wanted, nowhere near the original plant. These are easily dug up and moved to better locations.
Herbalists use bea balm as a medicinal plant, brewed into a tea to treat colds, coughs and throat irritations. This tea is also used to ease menstrual cramps. It is usually made from the flowers, but can be made from the leaves. Both are edible and are sometimes added to salads, soups and beverages.
Monarda didyma is the most widely available type of bea balm and is the type usually seen in flower gardens. There are more than 10 varieties of this plant, with bright red flowers being the favorite. Monarda citriodora is less common and has bright pink flowers and a lemony aroma.
Monarda fistulosa is common throughout the northeast United States, where it grows wild along lakes and streams, as well as in dry fields and along roadsides. The color ranges from lavender to pale pink with leaves that are hairier than the cultivated varieties. It is extremely hardy and can be grown alongside annuals and perennials in both herb and flower gardens. Gardeners sometimes plant bea balm near tomatoes to discourage insects.