When it comes to landscaping the farmstead or urban homestead, it’s nice to be able to include plants that are both beautiful and functional. Bee balm is a North American wildflower that easily fills both roles.
With an unusual, eye-catching bloom that is loved by bees and butterflies, these showy flowers can come in either scarlet (Monarda didyma) or lavender (Monarda fistulosa), but this plant provides more than just looks and wildlife habitat: It is also a versatile herb with many different uses for health and home.
If you enjoy Earl Grey, a cup of bee balm tea will seem familiar. One of bee balm’s other common names, wild bergamot, alludes to the sophisticated and citrusy notes possessed by this mint family herb, which is similar to the bergamot orange that flavors Earl Grey tea.
In fact, after the Boston Tea Party, bee balm is believed to have been used as a substitute for the British imported tea that the colonists were boycotting (read more about the history and lure of bee balm).
This herb also makes a lovely after dinner beverage thanks to its ability to support the digestive system, and is much loved by herbalists for its centering and calming influence in the face of nervousness and anxiety. Bee balm is just as wonderful when used in homemade herbal tea blends simply to bring a little extra flavor to the mix.
A tea made from bee balm leaves and flowers, also called an infusion, isn’t just for drinking. Once cooled, it can be applied topically as an alternative to lavender.
Bee balm used this way can a provide cooling, soothing wash for minor burns and sunburns, or a useful poultice for cuts, boils, and other skin care needs.
The complex, unusual flavor of bee balm is also right at home in the kitchen. As a spice, dried bee balm can be substituted for oregano and used on pizzas, in pasta, and anywhere else a pinch of oregano would be welcome.
Fresh bee balm leaves can be added to pesto, and the flower petals make a pretty and aromatic garnish. They can be used in salads, to make an herbal butter, or in homemade ice cream or a cream cheese spread. Bee balm petals are also a lovely way to dress up fresh fruit or a fruit salad like this one.
Another favorite way to use bee balm is by making a wildflower jelly.
A tincture or extract is another way to preserve and use this herb. Like the tea, a bee balm extract can be used to support urinary tract health, as a topical antiseptic, for digestive health, and to support emotional wellness.
A bee balm extract made with the “folk method” is an easy project that will make bee balm available year round for your homestead.
Step 1. Dry your herbs. The strongest extract with the best shelf life will be made using the dried herb. When your bee balm is in full bloom, harvest a bundle of bee balm stems with the leaves and flowers. Hang them to dry, or try one of these Three Easy Ways to Dry Herbs. You can even use a dehydrator to dry bee balm.
Step 2. Make your extract. When the bee balm is completely dry, crumble the leaves and flower tops into a clean, dry glass canning jar until your jar is half full. Add enough brandy or unflavored vodka to the jar to cover the bee balm with an inch of liquid. The alcohol provides shelf life and also helps extract the beneficial properties of the bee balm.
Step 3. Give your extract time. Place a tight fitting lid on the jar and gently shake the herbs and alcohol to combine. Let your bee balm soak in the alcohol for four weeks, but be sure to check on it every day and add more alcohol if necessary so that the herb stays covered. Give your bee balm extract a gentle shake each day.
Step 4. Strain and bottle your extract. At the end of four weeks, strain the herbs from the alcohol and bottle your bee balm extract in an amber colored glass bottle. Label and date your extract. Extracts can have a shelf life of two to several years. Herbalists sometimes use as little as 1 to 3 drops of extract at a time, or up to the range of 30 to 60 drops.
Bee balm is a perennial that, once planted, will thrive in your garden for years to come. This herb prefers full sun, but it can adapt to part shade and is deer resistant. It can also be grown easily in containers. Monarda spp. can be grown from Zones 4 through 9 and tolerate poor soils, but they may need to be watered during dry summers.
Take care not to wet the leaves when watering your bee balm to help keep your plants mildew-free. As easy to grow, versatile, and beautiful as bee balm is, it’s sure to become one of your favorite homestead flowers.
You can read more about bee balm in the Benefits of Bee Balm or Recipes and Remedies Using Bee Balm on the Herbal Academy blog. The Herbal Academy offers affordable, flexible online courses for budding herbalists through advanced practitioners and provides a vibrant online community for students to grow their herbal skills.
Photos provided and copyrighted by Annie Hall and Jane Metzger, Herbal Academy.
Agatha Noveille is an author, herbalist, and Associate Educator at the Herbal Academy. The Herbal Academy is an educational resource offering affordable online herbalist training programs for students at all experience levels, ranging from very beginner to the advanced professional level. Set your foundation in the Introductory Herbal Course, explore herbal therapeutics for body systems in greater depth in the Intermediate Herbal Course, prepare for business endeavors in the Entrepreneur Herbal Course, and delve into complex clinical topics in the Advanced Herbal Course. Learn more about the Herbal Academy’s training programs.