Growing Bee Balm

Taking advantage of a day off of work and some fabulously sunny weather, my husband and I took a short jaunt up to Calgary’s Nose Hill Park yesterday. We didn’t see the deer and coyotes that frequent the Hill (although tracks were everywhere!), but we still found a ton of interesting things to look at and photograph.

One of my subjects was a dried clump of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). They grow everywhere on the Hill, and I especially adore watching the bees go absolutely mad for them in the summertime.One of my biggest goals for my garden this year is to plant more pollinator-friendly plants, which will definitely include a cultivated Monarda variety.They don’t sport the common moniker of “bee balm” for nothing! (Butterflies and hummingbirds love them, too!). 

Bee balm is practical in other ways, as well:A quick check in Linda Kershaw’s guide to Alberta Wayside Wildflowers (2003, Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton) gives a bit of insight into the plant’s historical uses:

“European settlers and Native peoples gathered this aromatic plant for flavouring salads, cooked vegetables and stews and for making a pleasant minty tea. Dried, powdered leaves were sprinkled on food to keep flies and other insects away and were rubbed onto hair, skin, clothing and even favourite horses as perfume.”

Bee balm’s flavour is reminiscent of the fruit bergamot, which lends its common name.True bergamot – Citrus bergamia – is the flavouring you usually find in Earl Grey tea, although bee balm is occasionally substituted. Indeed, tea made from bee balm was famously used by the citizens of Oswego during the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when black tea could not be obtained.

A few varieties of Monarda that are tough enough for my zone 3 climate include M. didyma ‘Beauty of Cobham’ (pale pink flowers and burgundy foliage), ‘Marshall’s Delight’ (bright pink flowers), and ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ (red flowers).I’ll need to plant my bee balm in compost-amended, moist soil, in a sunny location.

Apparently bee balm is quite deer resistant.While I don’t usually have to worry about the long-legged herbivores, I have to contend with the long-EARED ones, so I hope that the rabbits are turned off as well!

Do you grow bee balm in your garden?Do you use the leaves in tea or for cooking, or the flowers in floral arrangements?

Published on Jan 2, 2013

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