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Bee balm: a great garden medicinal: Megan Riley shares the blessings of this favorite of bees.

We are coming into what can be a truly gratifying tune of year for growing medicinal herbs. Because of the fairly mild summers in and around the Southern Appalachians, there is a chance for us to start seeds and/or cuttings, grow and transplant young plants, nurture them in our gardens, and harvest them for fresh use and to dry, all the while enjoying the many benefits herbs add to our lives. Sometimes the hardest thing to do this time of year isn't to grow the herbs, but rather to decide which ones to grow!

New and experienced gardeners alike can enjoy the prospects of growing medicinal plants that are well-suited to our area, attract beneficial insects to the garden, provide wildlife habitat, don't displace native species and give beauty and fragrance to our gardens. Bee balm Monarda didyma, is also known as bergamot, Oswego tea, and horsemint. It is in the mint family (Lamiaceae), and was one of the many native American herbs used as a substitute for black tea following the Boston Tea Party. This mint is strongly aromatic, especially when fresh leaves are crushed or rubbed between fingers, and has been used to treat indigestion, colds, flu and fevers. It is delicious as a hot or iced tea, by itself or in combination with citrus peel and other mints, and is wonderful as an edible garnish.

Bee balm is easily grown both from seed and by the division of mature plants. To grow it from seed, place the seed into moist sand inside a protective cover (i.e., envelope) and into the refrigerator for at least two weeks. This gives the seed a "cold period" that mamics wintertime. (Seeds may be stored dry for greater lengths of time in the refrigerator to keep them fresh; the process described above is known as stratification.) Upon bringing the seed out of its cold period, have a seed-starting mix ready in a planting container with a drainage hole. Even a paper cup with a hole punched through the bottom works well, but make sure it is deep enough to hold at least three quarters of an inch of soil mix. This way, the moistened soil and seeds will not dry out too quickly between waterings. There are many seed-starting mixes available commercially. It can work to the advantage of new seedlings to mix compost, composted manure (make sure it is fully composted), or worm castings into a starting mix, as these will add nutrients beneficial to the young seedlings once the seeds have germinated. A good general rule is to add a small percentage of these nutrient-laden products into the mix, such as twenty percent. (This translates to one part compost/worm castings to four parts seed-starting mix. Adding too much can cause the mixture to drain more slowly.)

The bee balm seed is very small (in between free and medium grains of salt) so, after lightly sprinkling it onto the surface of the pre-moistened seed starting mix, barely cover it with an eighth of an inch or less of the mix. Then, gently water the seeds in with a watering tool that has a superfine mist adjustment; this way, the seeds may be watered thoroughly without knocking them to the edges or out of the container. Keep the newly planted seeds moist, but not soggy, and in a sunny spot that stays between sixty and seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds will germinate in ten to twenty days: if they cool to less than sixty degrees at night, the germination process will probably take longer.

When the seeds germinate, they may continue to grow right where they are until they get their first set of true leaves. These are not the first leaves that appear upon germination, but the second set. which are like the shape of the leaves of the adult plant. For bee balm, these will be oblong, pointy-tipped and a bit fuzzy. When the true leaves become visible, the seedlings may be transplanted into individual containers and grown for five to eight more weeks, or until they are big enough for transplanting into the garden.

Bee balm lovers sun or partial sun (four hours or dappled sun all day) and rich to heavy garden soil that is a bit moist. It thrives in the wild on stream and pond banks. in moist meadows and at the base of steep grades, where a lot of water is running off the hillside. It also does fine in clay soil as long as this soil is not allowed to completely dry out. The flowers of bee balm bloom in July and August, sometimes lasting into September, and range in color from white to deep scarlet red and all the hot and pastel pinks in between. (Different colors are offered by way of different cultivated varieties, or "cultivars.") The herb is a wonderful plant not only for bees but also lot beneficial pest-fighting wasps. Bee balm also serves as a nectar plant for hummingbirds, who are attracted by their colors.

So, instead of wavering back and forth on which medicinal herb to plant this season, give bee balm a try, Happy gardening and happy growing!


* Two or three fresh bee balm leaves, or two tsp dries leaves

* One cup hot water

* Tiny pinch sea salt

* Honey to taste

Steep the fresh or dried leaves in hot water with salt added for ten minutes. Add honey. Prepare and drink as often as you wish.


Jesse Israel & Sons Garden Center Inc. 570 Brevard Rd # 16, Asheville, NC | 828-254.2671

B. B. Barns Inc. The Garden Company 831 Fairview Rd, Asheville, NC | 828-650-7300

Reems Creek Valley Nursery 14 Roberts Cove lid, Weaverville, NC | 828-658-3732

Country Fields Greenhouse 154 Lower Grassy Branch Rd, Asbeville, NC | 828-296-8839

Sandy Mush Herb Nursery 316 Surrett Cove Rd, Leicester, NC | 828-683-2014

Creekside Nursery 827 Charlotte Hwy, Fairview, NC | 828-299-7172

Henn's Plant Farm 370 Lindsey Loop Rd, Fletcher, NC | 828-684-2321


Park Seed Company 1 Parkton Ave, Greenwood, SC | 800-213-0076

Garden Medicinals P.O. Box 320, Earlysville, VA | 434-964-9113

Johnny's Selected Seeds 955 Benton Avenue, Winslow, Maine | 877464.6697

Seeds of Change 888-762-7333 |

Note: Some of these sources may offer a closely related species, Monarda fistulosa, which is also easily grown in our region in full sun to partial shade with moderate moisture.

Megan Riley enjoys all sorts of plants, gardening and people, and she loves working with others to appreciate the Earth. You can reach her by email at
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Title Annotation:digging in
Author:Riley, Megan
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:May 1, 2007
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