Bee balm is a charming member of any pollinator or herb garden. It’s also considered an essential in some household cupboards. In addition, it has a long and storied history starting here in the Americas. Native Americans used bee balm long before European settlers arrived. When they did, they taught them all about it – and gave them a critical tool in the fight against British rule! Here we’ll take you through everything you need to know about Bee Balm flower meaning and symbolism, their history, and origins, uses and benefits, and cultural significance today.
- Bee Balm Flower Meaning & Symbolism – The Essentials
- About Bee Balm Flowers
- Uses and Benefits of Bee Balm Flowers
- Bee Balm Flower Meaning & Symbolism
- The Cultural Significance of Bee Balm Flowers
- Suitable Gifting Occasions for Bee Balm Flowers
- How to Care for Fresh Cut Bee Balm Flowers at Home
- Bee Balm FAQs
Bee Balm Flower Meaning & Symbolism – The Essentials
Traditionally, Bee Balm flowers have carried the symbolic meaning of sympathy, clarity of thought, prosperity, and protection. Bee balm was an important plant in sweat lodge ceremonies of East Coast Native American tribes. It also played a pinch-hitter role when colonists needed a drinkable substitute after the Boston Tea Party. Some say its red flowers associated it with fire and Mars.
About Bee Balm Flowers
Bee balm is an herbaceous perennial that grows well in most temperate zones.
Bee Balm – Family, Genus and Taxonomy
Bee balm’s Latin name is Monarda didymus. It is a member of Lamiaceae, also known as the mint or sage family.
Bee Balm Botanical Characteristics, Colors, and Fragrances
Bee balm is a strongly scented plant. Its leaves have a sharp minty flavor, which some say is closer to oregano. Others compare it to citrus.
Flowers grow on upright stems from herby-looking clumps of bushes. Blooms are red to fuschia to purple to pink, with spikes that make them look like exploding fireworks.
Bee balm is a healthy grower. It fills in garden patches nicely. It also spreads freely in two main ways:
- Stems, also called stolons, that branch from the base of the plant and take root to form a new plant
- Seeds, which will drop and self-sow if you leave flower heads attached
After a few years, a bee balm plant will begin to die out. Clumps usually form dead clusters in the center. For this reason, gardeners should dig it up and divide it every few years.
History & Origins of Bee Balm Flowers
Bee balm has been used by Native American peoples for thousands of years. The Oswego people of what is now New York State, as well as other Indian tribes, used it for a wide variety of purposes.
Sometime after the colonists arrived in America, the indigenous people showed them how to use bee balm. John Bartram, a Philadelphian, sent seeds to England in the 18th century. From there, it disseminated into gardens across the continent.
Popular Bee Balm Types, Species, and Cultivars
Bee balm has been bred for centuries. As such, there are tons of cultivars from which to choose. 10 of our favorites include:
- Monarda bradburiana (Eastern Bee Balm)
- Monarda punctata (Spotted Bee Balm)
- Monarda clinopodia (White Bergamot)
- Monarda clinopodioides (Basil Bee Balm)
- Monarda maritima (Seaside beebalm)
- Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot)
- Monarda citriodora (Lemon Bee Balm)
- Monarda Pectinata (Pony Bee Balm)
- Monarda stanfieldii (Stanfield’s Bee Balm)
- Monarda didyma (Scarlet Bee Balm)
The following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit:
- Beauty of Cobham
- Gardenview Scarlet
- Marshall’s Delight
Bee balm is simply named for its ability to soothe bee stings.
What Regions Are Bee Balm Flowers Native To?
Native to America, bee balm played an important role in indigenous ceremonies before European settlers arrived. It is now a fairly cosmopolitan plant. Originally, though, it ranged across the East Coast of North America.
When Are Bee Balm Flowers in Season?
Bee balm typically blooms from July to August.
Uses and Benefits of Bee Balm Flowers
Bee balm is widely used in traditional practices at home.
In Food and Drink
Bee balm is a fresh-tasting herb that is good for a wide variety of culinary endeavors. Because it is so closely related to mint, it can serve many of the same purposes. That includes:
- Using the leaves in hot and iced tea
- Drying the leaves and using in place of oregano
- Harvesting flowers and leaves for use in salads
- Decorating cakes and other sweets with flowers
- Freshening up cocktails such as juleps and drinks made with tonic water
In Herbalism and Medicine
Native Americans and early European settlers used bee balm to soothe a wide variety of ailments. As a tea, it is useful for:
- Digestive troubles
- Gas and bloating
- Sore throat
When used as a topical analgesic, it helps with:
- Small cuts or wounds
- Bee and insect stings
- Rashes or plant reactions
Many people also use it in aromatherapy.
The Pollinating Power of Bee Balm
Given its name, you’re probably not surprised to learn that bee balm makes a grand addition to the pollinator landscape. (Though remember, it actually gets its name for its ability to help with bee stings.) It attracts nectar and pollen-loving plants of every stripe.
Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds flock when blooms are in season. Come winter, if you let the flowers go to seed, a variety of other birds will come to the feast.
Bee Balm Toxicity
Bee balm is in no way toxic to humans. Although the roots of bee balm aren’t tasty, they are still edible for humans. Sometimes they’re even used in tea when people want a stronger flavor.
All parts of the plant are also nontoxic for dogs and cats. That said, they may cause stomach upset.
Bee Balm Flower Meaning & Symbolism
Bee Balm flowers have traditionally held a variety of symbolic meanings including:
- Sympathy for loss or hard times
- Clarity of mind or thought
- Safety and protection from illness (probably owing to its traditional medicinal uses)
Bee balm’s colors also layer in additional symbolic meanings in the language of flowers. Bee balm is traditionally available in red, the color of love. It’s also found in purple (wealth), pink (friendship), and white (purity or mourning).
The Cultural Significance of Bee Balm Flowers
As it’s native to the Americas, bee balm isn’t associated with any European, African, or Asian myths. Rather, it has a rich North American history.
Bee Balm and the Oswego People
Bee balm gets one of its other names, “Oswego Tea,” from an indigenous American tribe. This tribe was native to what is now New York State. They used it in herbalism and cooking.
They also used it to brew a rich, minty tea. When European settlers arrived, Native Americans taught them to recognize and use the plant in food and medicine.
Native Americans also used it in sweat lodge ceremonies. Because the plant is known to induce sweating, it was the perfect addition to such rituals.
A Starring Role in the Boston Tea Party
For anyone who’s forgotten their history, the Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, shortly before the American Revolution. The slogan: No taxation without representation! In other words, they felt they shouldn’t have to pay taxes when they didn’t get a vote in how the colonies were run.
They had good reason for outrage. England, deep in debt, milked the American colonists for all they were worth. They taxed everything from paper to glass to paint and, yes, tea.
Rebels staged the protest at Boston Harbor. They dumped 342 chests of East India Company tea into the water, ruining it. The event is one of the ones that sparked the revolution.
Naturally, no one was actually going to give up tea for good. The settlers instead turned their teatime attentions to Oswego tea or bee balm.
Clarity and Fire
While bee balm is not a traditional plant in Wicca or new age witchcraft, it does have some associations. Some people claim it is associated with the fire element, given their bright red fireworks flowers. Others say they bring clarity of thought.
Suitable Gifting Occasions for Bee Balm Flowers
Bee balm isn’t a flower confined to one genre or occasion. You can use it for almost any event, from anniversaries to lovers’ bouquets. It works well for sympathy and simple household decoration as well!
How to Care for Fresh Cut Bee Balm Flowers at Home
Bee balm is a great filler for bouquets. Its firework-shaped flowers provide great depth to arrangements.
As cut flowers, bee balm is somewhat more delicate than others. You can keep it fresher longer by adding a ¼ teaspoon of bleach per quart of water.
For more, see our comprehensive guide to fresh-cut flower care.
Bee Balm Flower FAQs
Why is bee balm called bee balm?
Bee balm got its name from its ability to help with insect stings.
Does bee balm come back every year?
Yes. Bee balm will freely self-seed if you leave flower heads attached after blooms are spent.
Does bee balm spread?
Bee balm spreads via stolons as well as by seed.
Where does bee balm grow best?
Bee balm is happiest in temperate regions, in full sun to part shade, with moist to wet soil.
What to bee balm symbolize?
Opinions differ, but bee balm can mean prosperity, health or clarity.
Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.
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