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Plant Profile: Bee Balm

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

Monarda


Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) oil pastel drawing/painting.
Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) oil pastel drawing/painting.

Name


Monarda descends from Nicolás Monardes, a Spanish colonial botanist who never actually stepped foot in the so-called New World where the plants grow wild. Each species name originates from a different source: clinopodia (white bee balm) comes from Latinized Greek, meaning little feet bed, and is also the genus name for another plant of the same tribe; didyma (scarlet bee balm) is from Greek, referring to a sanctuary for twin deities Apollo (god of the Sun and the arts) and Artemis (goddess of the Moon and the wild) on the island of Ionia; and fistulosa (purple bee balm) is from scientific Latin, meaning hollow. Several other species exist across North America (Turtle Island), including bradburiana, citriodora, punctata, and others.


Bee balm is the common English name of the genus, referring to its use in relieving the pain from bee stings. Other common names include wild bergamot (especially Monarda fistulosa) because it smells almost like bergamot orange, and oswego tea (especially Monarda didyma) from its history as an Iroquois beverage. Horse-mint (yet another name for Monarda fistulosa) also refers to a related plant from to the British Isles.


Scarlet bee balm blooming in Southern Appalachia.
Scarlet bee balm blooming in Southern Appalachia.

Habitat


Monarda species grow in gardens around the globe as fragrant ornamental plants, but they all originate from the diverse ecosystems of North America. Bee balms mainly spread through rhizomes underground, especially in meadows and along roadsides with full sun. Different species grow in mountains and river valleys, from the tropics to the arctic and from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.


Purple bee balm and butterfly in Southern Appalachia.
Purple bee balm and butterfly in Southern Appalachia.

Symbolism


Bee balms often symbolize health and prosperity. As indicated by the translation of clinopodia (little feet bed), bee balms carry as association with fairies and the little folk of the meadow. Their pin-cushion buds and shiny rings of trumpet blossoms invite many pollinating critters like butterflies, moths, bees, and hummingbirds. Upon encountering a bed of these awe-inspiring plants, drawn closer in by the smell of mint and citrus oils, one just might see tiny spirits dancing around their mind.



Uses


With its distinct and desirable flavors, bee balms make for delicious drinks on their own as tea or even as spices for cooking. Indigenous peoples had a variety of uses for each species. With the highest concentration of essential oils found in scarlet bee balm, it became a remedy for respiratory ailments as well as an antiseptic for wounds. Native people also discovered its ability to treat gingivitis as a mouth wash and to freshen up foul breath.


Bee balms belong in any garden for their showy blooms, pleasant scent, and medicinal properties. They provide nourishment for animals and people alike. Planting them around a building, they welcome the fairies and spirits of the wild closer into our world.



Precautions: avoid while pregnant



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