Foraging and Cooking with Bee Balm (Monarda Fistulosa)
Arguably the wild herb I harvest the most of each year, Wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) also known as wild bergamot and wild oregano, is one of the most useful wild herbs every forager in the United States should know.
Most gardeners will know the plant as a wild flower that's good for pollinators, but it's so much more. Today I'll tell you everything I know about finding, identifying, cooking, and using this wild edible herb, as well as its cultivated cousin scarlet bee balm.
Bee balm is in the mint family (Lamiaceae). Generally speaking, this means that the plant has a square stem, and usually has very aromatic leaves and edible flowers. Wild bee balm flowers are beautiful, sky blue, and they stick out like a sore-thumb when colonies of the plant are in bloom.
When crushed or bruised, the leaves give off a strong aroma of oregano and thyme, due to the presence of the essential oil thymol in the plant. The thymol, and the aroma it brings, is the biggest reason bee balm is a good culinary herb.
Bee balm likes full sun, so it's a common plant of open areas, clearings prairies and the edges of woods.
In mid-summer, typically around August in the Midwest where I live, the plant will start to make flowers. Noticing a field of bee balm plants and their purple flowers in bloom is the easiest way to find patches where you can gather greens the next year.
Bee balm growing in very humid places can be prone to powdery mildew, which ruins the leaves for cooking.
Cultivated Varieties (Scarlet Bee Balm)
A common garden plant, Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma, also known as Oswego tea) is the variety that most people will know. Scarlet bee balm resembles wild bee balm, but is typically taller. The most noticeable difference between the wild and cultivated variety are that scarlet bee balm has beautiful carmine-red flowers. The height and showy flowers make it a pretty garden ornamental that's good for pollinators.
The best part about Scarlet bee balm is the flavor of the flowers. They have the flavor of thymol like wild bee balm, but mixed with notes of ripe red fruit and berries.
The fresh leaves are wonderful scattered into a salad or sprinkled on just about anything. Mixed with a hot cup of water, the dried flower petals can make a nice tea.
Unlike wild bee balm, I don't use the leaves of scarlet bee balm in cooking-only the flowers. The leaves taste slightly odd to me, and not as pleasant as the leaves of its wild cousin.
You'll the largest harvest of high quality leaves if you gather the plant before it goes to flower. As the flowers bloom, the plant gets taller, the stems get more rigid, and the leaves are less concentrated on the plant. I look for large colonies of plants about a 1-2 feet tall, and using a scissors, I cut the top 6 inches or so off and put them in a paper bag.
When I get home, I put transfer the plants to a plastic bag and store in the fridge. You must cool down the plants after harvesting within a few hours or they will wilt and discolor, which mutes the flavor.
If you bring your plants home and they're wilted from travel, soak them in a bowl of cold water for 20 minutes, or until they become perky again, then spin dry and store in a zip-top bag wrapped in paper towels. Freshly picked and quickly cooled, fresh bee balm leaves will keep in the fridge for at least a week.
This is an incredibly versatile wild herb with many more uses than bee balm tea. The thymol means that it's a great substitute anywhere you'd use oregano or thyme. Some people (myself included) have started to refer to wild bergamot as "pizza plant" because it pairs so well with tomatoes, especially tomato sauce.
There's two ways you can use bee balm leaves and flowers in cooking: fresh, and dried.
The fresh green leaves of the plant add a great flavor to sauces, especially tomato sauces, soups, marinades and vinaigrettes, and basically anywhere you'd use fresh oregano or thyme. Fresh, I use the leaves to make salmoriglio sauce. It's one of my favorite things to do with the plant.
Bee balm flowers will lost some of their power after drying, so I typically use them fresh only, although they can be ok for tea.
The fact that bee balm can be harvested easily in large quantities, dry well and keep a great flavor, makes it of my favorite foraged herbs to cook with.
Just like the fresh plant, you can use the dried leaves anywhere you'd use dried oregano or thyme.
You can use dried bee balm anywhere you would use dried oregano, but some recipes and methods are better than others. Here's a few ideas I've tried, and some that are on the list:
- Add dried bergamot to all-purpose tomato or pizza sauce.
- The dried leaves are great added to bread doughs a pastries.
- Mixed sliced fresh leaves or flowers into potato salad.
- They leaves are great chopped and used tossed with grilled vegetables like zucchini
- Blanch some diced eggplant in salted water, then bake in the tomato-bergamot sauce with cheese for an excellent side dish.
- Use dried bergamot, lemon zest, crushed garlic cloves and olive oil to marinate chicken, pork or fish
- Fresh bergamot leaves have a strong flavor, but can be used with a little technique, see my recipe for salmoriglio sauce below for my favorite recipe
- Fresh scarlet beebalm leaves are wonderful with red fruit, especially raspberries and strawberries. Sprinkle a few over some macerated strawberries on top of a panna cotta, or soft cheese.
How to dry
To dry the plant for use as an herb, I harvest the whole stems of the plant, typically the tender tops. You can harvest bee balm greens when the plant is older and taller too, tying them up and hanging them to dry in the sun as illustrated below.
If I harvest young plants I put the leaves, stems in a dehydrator and dry at 100 F or on the "herb" setting for twelve hours or until the leaves are brittle and fully dried. If it's very humid where you live, you'll want to dry your leaves at a higher temperature (130 F) to make sure you can crumble them after drying.
Once the leaves and stems are dried, I put them in a spice jar. Finished, dried bee balm leaves can be stored in a pantry like any other herb.
It's good to not crumble the leaves up too much before storing. Just like dried oregano, crumbling the dried herb between your fingers helps to release the thymol when you cook with it. Before adding bee balm to a dish, you'll want to crumble it and remove any tough stems. If you want to do this in advance, you'll want to store your dried leaves in the fridge to keep the best flavor.