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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Bee Balm: My Favorite Wild Herb

One of the most common questions I get during foraging classes, podcasts, or interviews is, "What percentage of your diet is wild food?" It's a hard question to answer because wild food is a normal part of my everyday life and is included in most meals I eat one way or another. The most common way wild food is added to my diet is through wild herbs and spices, and bee balm is my favorite among them!


Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, in bloom.
Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, in bloom.

Bee balm is also sometimes called wild bergamot because its scent has some herbal citrus notes that can be similar to the citrus of the same name. However, I find the name confusing for people more familiar with the citrus, so I usually call it bee balm. Monarda fistulosa is my most used and favorite wild spice. It has a lovely minty, citrusy, slightly peppery oregano flavor, and I use it instead of mint and oregano. It’s amazing as a finishing touch on a homemade pizza, makes a tasty tea, and adds something extra when used instead of oregano. Let’s learn how to identify bee balm, where it grows, and how to harvest and use it!


Homemade pizza with wild pesto, oyster mushrooms, asparagus, and torn bee balm.
Homemade pizza with wild pesto, oyster mushrooms, asparagus, and torn bee balm.

Bee Balm Description


Bee balm is a perennial plant in the mint family that spreads through rhizomes and seeds. Once established, it will create spreading colonies that return year after year, though it isn’t quite as likely to take over as some cultivated mint species. This is a great native perennial to have in your garden! It smells amazing, attracts pollinators, and is food. What else could we need?!


A bee visiting the flowers of bee balm.
Bees and other pollinators love bee balm. It's in the name!

As with all mint family plants, it has square stems. When picking the plant, these are easy to see and can also be recognized by rolling the stem between two fingers. The leaves are oppositely arranged, lance-shaped, and serrated. Occasionally, they have a darker purple hue around their edges, especially when young. Bee balm flowers emerge from a tight-packed cluster of flower buds at the apex of the stems. These bloom into puffs of tubular, pink-purple flowers. Later in the season, those flowers fall away, leaving behind a dry flower head full of small brown seeds.


A single stem of bee balm growing along a river in Colorado.
Bee balm has square stems and opposite leaves like all mint-family plants.

Range & Habitats


Wild bee balm is native to North America and can be found in every state in the lower 48 except Florida and all the Canadian provinces that border the United States. Within the US, it is much more widespread in the eastern half. In the western states, like here in Colorado, it tends to be concentrated along riparian habitats and sunny mountain meadows. It will happily grow in your yard or garden with minimal care.


Bee balm growing along a riparian habitat in Colorado.
Bee balm growing along a riparian habitat in Colorado.

Potential Look-alikes


The information in the description above should be enough to identify bee balm properly. However, look-alike information is regularly requested, so here are some possible species that could be confused with bee balm. This list is not comprehensive and may not be relevant to your region. Remember only to eat wild foods once you're 100% confident in your identification and comfortable with trying something new.


  • Other plants in the mint family Lamiaceae. Most species are safe to consume, though some have compounds that should only be eaten in small quantities.

  • Other species of Monarda, such as the red blooming variety Monarda didyma. All of these are also edible.


Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, growing wild in Colorado.
Lemon balm growing wild in Colorado. Many mint family plants could be confused with bee balm before flowering.

 

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Edibility & Harvesting


Though bee balm is an edible plant, for me, it falls into the category of herb or flavoring. You probably wouldn’t want to eat a salad made of bee balm leaves because of their intense flavor. The leaves are quite versatile as an herb, and their taste can be variable, but they are most comparable to minty, citrusy oregano. My favorite use for them is as a dried herb, which I most commonly use instead of oregano. To harvest the leaves, pick or cut them from the plant at any stage of growth. If you plan on using whole leaves, the tender new growth would be a better option, as the mature leaves may be tough and more strongly flavored.


A bowl of dried bee balm leaves.
Dried bee balm leaves are an excellent wild replacement for oregano!

The flowers can be used as an herb as well and similarly provide a minty oregano flavor with some additional floral notes! To harvest the flowers, look for blooms that haven’t started wilting or falling off the plant. Snip the entire flower head from the plant or pluck the individual flowers. These can be used fresh as a pretty pink garnish or dried and used as an herb. Aside from an herb, both the leaves and flowers make a lovely tea and can also be used for infusions such as liqueur, ice cream, vinegar, syrup, flower jelly, and more!


A bowl of dried bee balm flowers.
I prefer using whole dried bee balm flowers for tea, but they are also great as an herb.

Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest bee balm and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


A screenshot of my Foraging Calendar.


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