If you were to look out the back window of my mother’s house you would see that her flower gardens are endless, claiming territory in the grass and fading back into the forest that surrounds the house. It’s unclear where her garden ends and the native wildflowers begin, particularly because because of the native bee balm (botanical name Monarda) that grows in shocks of red and pink and lavender beyond her reach. While bee balm flowers are spectacular with their fireworks of color, It’s the intoxicating fragrance and history as a medicinal flower that excite me most.
Many Native American tribes drank a tea made of Monarda didyma (also known as Oswego tea) to break fevers and aid digestion, and used the leaves externally as an antiseptic. White settlers gave another type of bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, the moniker Wild Bergamot after noticing its lovely citrus-y flavor and smell. One of my favorite summer drinks is a tea made from Monarda fistulosa flowers and leaves mixed with traditional tea leaves, a homemade Earl Grey.
If you examine a Monarda plant closely, you’d find it has a square stem, characteristic of plants in the mint family. Any above-ground portion of the plant can be used in a tea, though I’m partial to the color and magic that using flowers brings to any tea or medicine. I have found that they do well regardless of whether they’re growing in full sun or in the forest, so no excuse if your garden has been too shady for flowers in the past.
The flowers also have the distinction of driving bees mad with pleasure. Plant Monarda to draw and excite the butterflies and bees you want pollinating your garden. Determine which species are native to your area and plant them to become a true steward of the land.
(photos by Rachel Joy Baransi)