Native Plant Love: Scarlet Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)


Scarlet bee balm can be considered the North American native cousin of oregano of North America...and so much more! Identified by its beautiful crowns of crimson flowers, it is commonly used as an ornamental plant in gardens today. But upon further research into its past, I found that Monarda didyma was well-regarded as a source of primary medicine for indigenous communities, including the Blackfeet, Hopi & Cherokee peoples.


Its use as a primary medicine stems from the wide variety of ailments that its active oils can treat -- Monarda oil is anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, antiseptic and a nervine. A tincture can be used to treat upset stomach or bacterial infections, an infused oil can be added to salves for relief of skin wounds and muscle cramps, infused raw honey is helpful for relief from sore throat (and is just plain tasty!) and the leaves can be applied as a poultice to treat cuts & bruises.

The leaves and flowers can also be eaten fresh as a flavoring herb. Its oils are much less potent when ingested in raw form, so it is a wonderful way for pregnant women to enjoy the benefits of this plant. Tinctures & essential oils should be avoided by pregnant women because of Monarda's ability to induce menstrual flow.

A tea made with the leaves or flowers of the plant has been called Oswego Tea. During the British colonial era, Oswego Tea was given to revolutionary colonists during their boycott of tea from the British East India Company and its products. The tea has a calming, sedative effect similar to lemon balm and mint.

Because its beneficial uses are so diverse and wide-ranging -- it is a great plant to grow in your herb garden and to have on hand in your medicine cabinet. Plus, it is native to North America (found mostly in the eastern part of the continent and in the Pacific Northwest), the plant is drought-tolerant once it gets established, and its large red blooms attract hummingbirds, bees & butterflies to your garden. This plant can sure stack some functions, making it a perfect addition to your permaculture ecosystem.