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What is a Bee Balm Plant?

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  • Written By: Devon Pryor
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Sandor Kacso, Evgenyatamanenko, Artist_As, City Of Boston Archives, Piotr Marcinski
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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Would bee balm by any other name smell as sweet?

The buzz about bee balm is that it’s commonly confused with lemon balm. Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, is a member of the mint family. Lemon balm goes by a number of other names, including sweet balm, and bee balm. This might explain the common misconception that lemon balm and bee balm are the same plant.

True bee balm is a wild flower, not a mint. As a member of the genus monarda, bee balm is closely related to wild bergamot, Oswego tea, and roughly 12 other species. Members of the genus monarda have leaves that, when crushed, emit an oil with a spiced citrus fragrance.

Bee balm is a perennial herb native to Eastern North America that has been hybridized for use in gardens. The plant’s blossoms are usually red, pink, or light purple in color and bloom in summer. Bee balm is easy to propagate, and spreads quickly, making it a popular garden plant. But bee balm is far more than a decorative flowering perennial. Bee balm has a number of uses outside the garden.

The variety of bee balm that has red blossoms is more commonly known as Oswego tea. Oswego tea was reportedly used among Native Americans as a diaphoretic, or sweat inducer, during sweat lodge ceremonies. Oswego tea was also used by the New England colonists to replace English tea after the notorious Boston Tea Party.

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Although it is arguable that lemon balm holds the greater reputation as a cure-all, bee balm also has many uses in the area of herbal and alternative medicines. Within these fields, bee balm is commonly used as an antiseptic, diuretic, stimulant, diaphoretic, and carminative, or flatulence reliever. As an antiseptic, the plant, or more commonly its fragrant oil, can be used externally to treat skin eruptions and infection. Used internally, bee balm can treat or relieve colds, headaches, sore throat, fever, nausea, menstrual pain, insomnia, and gastric disorders, including flatulence.

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