Monarda, commonly called bee balm or bergamot, is also known by the names oswego tea and horsemint. Bergarnot is native to North America and was used to make an infusion by the Oswego Indians, hence the name ‘Oswego tea’. Oswego tea was embraced as a beverage by the early American settlers, who after the Boston tea party in 1773, boycotted Indian tea which was traded by the English. Bergamot was identified in the sixteenth century by the Spanish medical botanist Nicolas de Monardes, whose name is used to identify this genus of plants. Bergamot gets its name from the similarity it has in aroma to the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia). Oil of bergamot comes from the bergamot orange and is used to flavor Earl Grey tea.

What is Bergamot?

Bergamot is a member of the mint family. Bergamot bears a dozen or more tubularshaped flowers clustered in pom-pom shaped whorls atop strong, square stems with pairs of oval, hairy leaves 3 1/4 in. (8 cm) long and 3/4 in. (2 cm) wide. The resplendent flowers range from pink and mauve to a rich, vibrant red in the case of the most popular ‘Cambridge scarlet’ variety. This often forgotten herb is easy to find fresh, and can be dried for an aromatic and useful bouquet. Monarda petals can taste citrusy or have a peppery quality similar to oregano, depending on variety and where it is grown. They can be used in salads, herb butters, or sprinkled over steamed vegetables.

Cambridge Scarlet Bee Balm: Citrus-flavored leaves, with hints of orange and lemon. Use fresh whole or chopped leaves in recipes for duck, meat, sausages, and curries. Also complements many fruits, including strawberries, oranges, apples, melons, and tangerines. Combines well with mint. Fresh flowers are edible and can be used in salads or as garnishes. Flower color: brilliant scarlet

Lavender Bee Balm: Large and colorful, spicy flowers. Often called bergamot because its citrusy flavor is similar to the bergamot orange, bee balm flowers make a great addition to oil when frying white fish or scallops. Their strong flavor also goes well with meat and pork dishes. Bee balm leaves have a very strong flavor and should be dried before use. Add the dried leaves to black tea to make your own Earl Grey. Use whole flowers to make attractive floating garnishes in punch bowls of sangria, or use them to decorate the rim of a serving platter. Bee balm flowers can be fresh-frozen and will keep for two months or more. Flower color: purple

Cooking with Bergamot

Bergamot can be used in several ways outside of tea. The plant can be used as a cooking herb. It is best to use the flowers for tea, the leaves have a hotter, oregano-like flavor. Enliven the taste and look of salads by adding a sprinkling of bergamot flowers. Use fresh or dried leaves in tomato dishes, and as a substitute for sage in stuffing for poultry and meats, especially pork and veal.

The fresh leaves can be added to jellies, punch, lemonade or wine to add extra taste. The flavor of Monarda combines well with tropical fruits like pineapple, mango and orange. Use flowers and leaves in recipes for chicken, turkey, and pork dishes. Monarda fruit punch is delicious, and the flowers a colourful addition to salads.

The flavor of Earl Gray tea is often attributed to Monarda, yet, the taste actually originates from the oil of Citrus aurantium bergamia (Bergamot Orange). The plants are unrelated but have similar flavors. To create a mock-Earl Gray tea, steep 2 tablespoons of dried Monarda flowers with a good black tea for 5-7 minutes. A single cup can be made by pouring one cup of boiling water over 2 teaspoons of dried flowers in a tea infuser or strainer. DO NOT BOIL THE FLOWERS. Boiling can evaporate the oils which produce the flavor.

Health Benefits

The leaves and flowers of monarda are used for colds, reducing fever, soothing sore throats, headaches, insomnia and menstrual pain. A steam inhalation of the plant is useful for soothing inflamed mucus membranes. Poultices and compresses are used for skin infections or bruises. It is also good for soothing the digestive tract. The plant has antibacterial properties, which helps to treat infections. It also has antiseptic qualities that fight bacteria, parasites and fungi. The herb contains thymol, which is responsible for many of the plants healing qualities. Oswego Tea can be made as a soothing drink to calm nerves and as a relaxing sleep aid, and is often combined with other well-known relaxation herbs such as Valerian and Chamomile for this purpose. Externally, bee balm is a wonderful aromatherapy herb. Try placing a handful of fresh leaves in a cloth and positioning it under hot running bath water for a relaxing, lemony scented bath. Deeply breathing in the steam may also help relieve cold symptoms such as sore throat, fever, and congestion.

Bee Balm has also shown some merit as an antiseptic and antibacterial, and a clean cloth can be soaked in a tea and used as a compress, or an ointment can be made to help relieve pain and speed healing for minor wounds, insect stings, and for relief of eczema, psoriasis, cold sores, and clearing up acne.

Dangers: Bergamot stimulates contractions in the uterus. This can be harmful to pregnant women. The thymol present in the plant can cause nausea, convulsions, vomit, gastric pain or external rashes. Bergaptene is also found in bergamot, and may cause phototoxicity. In this case, the skin should not be exposed to sunlight after external use of the oil. The thymol in bergamot can cause vomiting, nausea, gastric pain, convulsion, or rashes. Monarda lutea, or horsemint, is especially known for having high levels of thymol.

Growing Bee Balm

Monarda grows best in full sun but tolerates light shade, and will thrive in any moist soil that is rich in organic matter such as manure, compost, or leaf mold. It grows from two to four feet tall depending on the variety, and will fit well into your herb garden or can be used for a perennial border planting. The plants are well known to attract butterflies and bees. Like other members of the mint family, Bee Balm can become invasive, but you can keep your clump contained by dividing the roots in either spring or fall. The plant should be divided every 3 years to keep it tidy. Dig up the root clump in the early spring, discard the inner, older portion, and re-plant the new divisions 12 to 15 inches apart. Be sure to allow for good air circulation around the plants to prevent attacks from powdery mildew! You can stimulate a second flowering in the same year by cutting the flowers right after they bloom. In the fall, prune your Monarda plants to within an inch of the ground. For faster growth, fertilize in the spring with a good all purpose (10-10-10) liquid plant food.

Other Names

Bee Balm, Bergamot, American Melissa, Fragrant Balm, Gold Melissa, Horse Mint, Indian Nettle, Indian Plume, Oswego Tea

Scientific Name:

Cambridge Scarlet Bee Balm: Monarda didyma Lavender Bee Balm: Monarda fistula Fam: Labiatae (mint family)

Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay