Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bee balm - our native spice

Bee Balm
Monarda fistulosa, M. punctata, M. menthifolia, M. didyma
Also called Wild Bergamot, Sweet Leaf, Horsemint, Wild Oregano, Oswego tea

Plant family: Mint family (Lamiaceae)

Plant energetics: spicy, diffusive, stimulating

Parts used: Aerial portions, harvested preferably just before a full bloom emerges

Plant properties: anti-microbial, carminative, stimulating/relaxing diaphoretic, anti-spasmodic, emmenagogue, relaxing nervine

Plant preparations: Infused honey, infused vinegar, tincture, steam inhalation, infused oils and salve, culinary spice, cough syrup, douche

Used for: Colds and the flu symptoms (fevers, sore throats, coughs), UTIs, yeast infections, topical fungal infections, digestive woes, wounds, burns, as a culinary spice, toothaches, steam for congested sinuses, mouth wash, inflammation

And the smell. If you haven’t smelled bee balm, go smell some as soon as you can. Taste it while you’re at it. Make some tea. It’s calming and comforting and enlivening. We drank it all winter when I was small—sometimes mixed with lemon balm, sometimes on its own. - Rebecca Crabapple

Bee balm is such a delightful plant with its splash of flowers, strong scent, spicy taste and of course its affinity for bees. 

It grows up to five feet tall in my garden and the bees can’t get enough of the flowers, buzzing from one to another in such quantity that the whole bush seems to hum at a low frequency. 

Although bee balm is easily grown in the garden, this mint is endemic to North America and can be found growing wild throughout the US and Canada (see the USDA range map below). It was used extensively by many different native american tribes, including the  Blackfoot, Menominee, Ojibwa and Winnebago. 

This plant has many common names but they are all referring to some type of Monarda species. There are about 16 different species of Monarda and as far as I know all can be used interchangeably with the taste of the plant giving us insight into its potency. Generally, the spicier the plant, the more potent. Monarda fistulosa, M. punctata, M. menthifolia, and M. didyma are the ones most commonly used as medicine. 

Bee balm is a plant of many hats. It can find its way into your culinary spice cabinet, yet be some of our most potent medicine against infections. 

For infections of the mouth... 
Chemically, bee balm is closely related to thyme. Both of these plants contain high concentrations of thymol, which is a strong antiseptic. Thymol is a main ingredient in many commercial mouthwashes. A tea made from bee balm or a tincture of bee balm diluted in water not only freshens the breath but can also address infections in the mouth and gums. 

For infections and discomfort of the digestive tract... 
As a spicy carminative herb, bee balm can promote stagnant digestion and relieve discomforts such as bloating, cramping and excessive gas. Herbalist Matthew Wood says it is beneficial for gallstone colic. Besides helping with a little indigestion, bee balm is a heavy hitter for serious intestinal woes from diarrhea to vomiting to cholera. 

It soothes gastric and intestinal pain in the absence of inflammation, especially in Cholera Morbus and overcomes nausea and vomiting. It controls diarrhea from debility with relaxation of the mucous structures of the intestinal canal.
Finley Ellingwood, 1919

For fungal infections...
Bee balm is strongly anti-fungal, lending itself to combatting topical infections as well as imbalanced healthy flora such as candida overgrowth and chronic vaginal yeast infections. For topical infections try a wash made from the tea as well as taking it internally as a tincture or tea. 

For candida overgrowth try drinking regular cups of tea or drops of the tincture. For chronic vaginal yeast infections drink the tea internally as well as use the cooled tea as a douche. 

Oil of Oregano is currently a popular item in alternative medicine for combating candida and various infections, but what most people do not know is that the active constituent of Oil of Oregano is present in large amounts in our own Monarda. For anything you might use Oil of Oregano for, you can substitute the prolific (and cheap) Monarda. -Kiva Rose
Monarda didyma taken at a friends garden in southern France

For colds and the flu...
Bee balm alone can be a wonderful pharmacy for the cold and flu season. The infused honey can soothe a sore throat. The hot tea can ease the discomfort of a fever and the inhaled steam can loosen congested mucous in the nose and lungs. 

Bee balm is a diffusive herb. It brings heat from the core of the body to the periphery. If that sounds abstract to you, try drinking a cup of hot bee balm tea. You can literally feel the heat rise from the core of your body up to the skin and then dissipate. 

In its general influence monarda punctata is a pure active stimulant of a diffusible character; a few drops of the oil on the tongue will produce a stimulation which will be felt at the tips of the fingers in a few minutes. It stimulates the nervous system and increases the heart's action, taking the place of alcoholic stimulants to a great extent. The essence, tincture or infusion are all prompt in their action. It soothes nervous excitement when due to exhaustion, promoting sleep and rest. Finley Ellingwood, 1919

One of the ways bee balm helps to break up stagnancy through its diffusive actions is by promoting delayed menses. We call this an emmenagogue or blood mover and it should not be taken in large amounts by women in pregnancy. 

As a relaxing nervine...
Besides fighting infection and restoring healthy flora, bee balm is wonderful as a relaxing nervine as well. Herbalist Matt Wood says bee balm is specific for people with excessive nervousness and anxiety and for those who have difficulties with their passions. He has an extensive write up of bee balm in his book, The Book Of Herbal Wisdom. 

Because bee balm is diffusive and stimulating in nature it works especially well for those people with symptoms of stagnancy and excessive dampness such as clammy skin. 

In my mind, Beebalm’s special talents lie in its infection resolving abilities as well as its mood lifting and somewhat euphoric effect upon the senses. It also has the benefit of having both stimulating and relaxing, warming and cooling attributes. It can create a distinct feeling of heat in the body, but also significantly cools inflammation of any kind.Kiva Rose
For preventing infection and healing burns... 
Bee balm is a wonderful remedy for burns. It can be infused in honey, in vinegar as a tea wash or even as a spit poultice. Once the heat has left the burn it can be applied as a salve. 

Botanically speaking... 
Bee balm grows readily in the garden as well as in the wilderness. All species of Monarda are endemic to North America. 

You can differentiate the species through flower color and growth patterns. In this section we’ll discuss the Monarda genus. 

Bee balm is a perennial plant that can grow up to six feet tall, but is more commonly around 4 feet. 

Being a member of the mint family, bee balm has many mint family characteristics. 
It has square stems and opposite lanceolate leaves. 

Its flowers have the typical “lipped” appearance of the mint family. I’ve heard them aptly described as fireworks. 

It flowers in the late summer and is typically harvested while in bloom. 

Plant Preparations
Bee balm is considered safe for most people but because of its ability to promote suppressed menstruation it should not be taken in medicinal doses by pregnant women. 
Although all species can be used in the same manner I suggest tasting your different bee balms to get a feel for the variations within them. This will help you to determine dosage. 

When making a tea, steep the plant for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Longer steeping might produce a tea that is difficult to drink due to the high volatile oil content. 
Bee balm makes a great tincture and can also be extracted into honey, vinegar and oil. 
It also makes a great culinary spice. Consider adding it to dishes where you would normally add oregano or thyme. Eggs, pizza and even vegetables and steak all combine well with this spicy plant. 

If you don't have bee balm growing near you, consider adding it to your garden. This is a fun and easy plant to grow and very difficult to find it in commerce. 

This article was originally posted on

Want to learn more? 
Here's an article about making bee balm oxymel. 
Hunger and Thirst's recipe for pizza
Hunger and Thirst's recipe for crackers

And don't forget Matthew Wood's Book of Herbal Wisdom


Rebecca said...

I love this post, Rosalee. Bee balm is one of my favourite herbs ever- I'm so bummed that it doesn't grow in the LA area (though I have one in my garden that's an inch taller than me now and still not flowered!). <3

Joanne Kewageshig said...

I love bee balm for it's properties and it's taste! I mix it with skullcap, lemonbalm and lavender as well as alfalfa, redclover and raspberry leaves. It makes an excellent nutritious and relaxing tea to sip throughout the day and helps me get a good deep sleep at night!
Joanne Kewageshig

palmtreepathos said...

I have had a white furry tongue since treatment for staph. I read this and decided to chew a few red bee balm buds last night and this morning I woke to find ZERO white thrush!

Sunflower Farm and Petit Creek Lavender said...

I was wondering does one only use the flower of the Bee balm or can you use other parts of the plant also?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I use the flower and leaves. It's fun to taste the different parts and see which are spicier and which are milder.

Ray Foucher said...

I came across your site as I was researching about Maurice Messegue. I signed up for your newsletter and then came across this page. It so happens we have a flower bed loaded with bee balm and alive with bees. I have no idea of its benefits – thank you for this. I have a health website about pain relief and will certainly consider adding some information about herbs. I'm eager to learn more.

Lori said...

Can you use the whole flower head, or just the petals?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

The whole flower head is great.