Bee balm is an umbrella term for perennial flowering herbs in the genus Monarda. In addition to attracting bees, bee balm is also very popular with butterflies and birds, making it an excellent choice for a garden which is designed to encourage animal visitors. Bee balm is in the mint family, and shares some characteristics with other plants in the Laminaceae group, but it does not smell minty. Instead, bee balm has a rich lemony aroma which can be quite pleasing, especially when the heat of the day brings it out.
North America is the native territory of bee balm, but it has been carried to other parts of the world as well. Monarda didyma is one of the most frequently cultivated species, since it has high concentrations of the aromatic oil which makes bee balm smell so distinctive. All of the species in the family have elongated leaves and clusters of tubular flowers, in colors such as red, purple, and white. The flowers grow on long upright stalks which protrude slightly above the leaves.
A bed of bee balm can be an excellent garden accent, and the plant can also be used as an herbaceous border. Bee balm does have a tendency to take over, so it should be planted and trimmed with care to keep it from getting too aggressive. It is also subject to molds and rots, and should be planted with plenty of surrounding space for ventilation, as well as mulched to reduce mold. The plant thrives when left largely alone, as long as it is in well drained soil and it is watered infrequently. This last trait makes bee balm a popular choice for low water gardening.
The plant is hardy in most USDA zones, although it may die back in extreme cold and frost. Bee balm should be cultivated from cuttings or divisions of the root ball, since the seeds do not always breed true. Most gardeners encourage divisions every two to three years to keep the plant healthy and to ensure that there is plenty of space in the flower bed.
In addition to smelling good, bee balm also tastes good. It can be used as an herbal accent on salads, or as a flavoring for olive oil. Bee balm has also historically been used to make tea, and is known in some parts of the United States as oswego tea for that reason. Horsemint is another alternative name for bee balm, although it should not be confused with another type of mint native to Europe.