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by Karyn Siegel-Maier


The genus Monarda was named after the Spanish physician Nicholas Monardes, who described wild bergamot in his work, American Floras, in 1571. Bergamot, often referred to as bee balm, became distinguished as "Oswego Tea" when a Quaker botanist, John Bartram, sampled a tea made from the leaves at Fort Oswego, New York. Bergamot became such a popular tea during the colonial period, the colonists hardly missed their black tea when it was sacrificed during the Boston Tea Party in 1773.


As was often the case, early North American settlers learned of the medicinal properties of this genus of plants from the natives of the land. Native Americans treated skin disorders and inflammations with poultices made from various species of Monarda. They also used teas and steam inhalants made from the leaves to treat respiratory difficulties.


Modern herbalists recommend bee balm tea for sore throats, coughs, nausea, and menstrual cramps. The essential oil of bergamot/bee balm also has antibacterial and antiseptic applications. Monarda didyma and M. punctata contain thymol, which has shown to be effective in repelling intestinal parasites and in destroying bacteria. There have also been studies which suggest that M. didyma may inhibit the action of herpes simplex and other related viruses. However, this constituent has not been standardized to a level of therapeutic benefit without undesirable side effects and use of the pure form can produce vomiting and diarrhea. Usually, a synthetic form of thymol is now used in formulas intended to be ingested.

There are at least 17 species of Monarda, which are actually mints belonging to the family Lamiaceae. Bergamot (Monarda didyma), one of the most popular species due to it's vivid scarlet color, grows abundantly in the woodlands of the Eastern United States. This is the variety that forms the hub of the traditional garden designed to attract hummingbirds. Lemon bee balm (M. citriodora) is naturalized in the Appalachian Mountains, and the Southwest is home to M. fitulosa, known as wild oregano. This species possesses the taste and aroma of true oregano to such a likeness that it is often sold as a substitute for the "real thing."


Monarda has as many uses as it has species, variety, and folk names. The flowers make an attractive and tasty addition to soups, salads, baked goods, jellies, and beverages. The flowers and leaves can also be used in dried floral arrangements. The essential oil of bergamot is often used in perfumery and in cosmetic preparations, particularly those formulated for dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.


Gardeners appreciate the understated beauty of Monarda and the wide variety of colors the various species lend to any flower bed. M. didyma for instance, has at least ten distinct varieties which exhibit sprays of color ranging from white, to blue, to shades of scarlet. M. fitulosa displays lavender blossoms, while M. citriodora yields pink blossoms with a heady lemon scent. Monarda is also reputed to be an excellent companion to tomatoes by improving the condition of the soil and deterring harmful insects.



Hummingbird Bread

Adapted from the Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook by Dorry Baird Norris


1 package dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

2 tbls butter margarine

1/2 tsp. honey

4 cups flour

1 cup fresh bee balm flowers (the outer soft petals)

1 cup water at room temperature

1 egg, slightly beaten


Dissolve yeast in warm water in mixing bowl. Add margarine and honey; mix thoroughly. Add flour and flower petals alternately with water; beat down after each addition. Knead the last of the flour/flowers mixture into the dough by hand.


Shape into a ball and place in a greased bowl, turning once to oil all surfaces. Cover with a damp towel; allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk.


Punch dough down; turn onto lightly floured board and knead for 5 minutes. Divide dough in half and shape into two round loaves. Place loaves 4 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet and cover with a damp towel. Allow to rise for 30 minutes. Brush top with beaten egg white and spread more bee balm blossoms that have been dipped in the egg white over top of the bread.


Bake in a preheated 400' F oven for 45-50 minutes, or until loaves are lightly browned.


This bread is best when allowed to rest in the refrigerator overnight. It's crumbly texture makes it difficult to use for sandwiches, but thick slices are delicious when toasted and served with a favorite spread.



Avocado, Carrot & Bergamot Dry Skin Cleanser

Adapted from "How to Make Herbal Cosmetics" by Karyn Siegel-Maier (The Herbal Muse Press)


1/2 cup avocado oil

1/4 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup glycerin

1/4 rosewater

4 drops jojoba oil

3 drops carrot essential oil

2 drops bergamot essential oil


In a double boiler, or bain marie, blend the coconut and avocado oils over gentle heat. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. Allow to cool and store in a sterile, airtight container.




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