By Susan Belsinger
(Blogmaster’s note: With Monarda currently in its full glory here in zone 7, we’re posting this recipe so you can take advantage of its unique flavors while it’s still in bloom. Serve these tasty treats at your next summer celebration!)
Monarda (commonly called bee balm or bergamot) is a native American herb named after a Spanish physician and botanist, N. Monardez, of Seville. Its unusual and ornamental flowers possess a distinctly architectural character with their rather bristly, shaggy-headed colorful appearance. All species attract bees and are good honey plants. Right now, my stands of the various bee balms are abuzz with activity from dawn until dusk. The twelve species of Monarda, all native to North America, offer a wide assortment of flavors and fragrances—from lemon to thyme to pungent oregano to tealike and rose—produced on annual or perennial plants. So sniff and taste the flowers and leaves before using them in a recipe because they are very different in flavor.
The cultivars with red flowers tend to have a tea-like aroma and flavor, suggesting Earl Grey tea and rose geranium; the leaves are more herbaceous, while the flowers are sweeter like honeysuckle. These leaves and flowers can be used for sweet dishes—in syrups and beverages (they make beautiful ice cubes), with summer fruits—and baked in scones and tea breads. The lemony forms, although rare, are delightful in tea and in fruit salads. The more common thyme- and oregano-scented clones have been used as substitutes for thyme and oregano, and generally their blooms are in shades of purple, pink, and white. Use these spicy leaves and flowers wherever you would use oregano; the flowers are fun and tasty scattered over pasta and vegetable salads, grain salads, and pizza.
While we love the bright red blooms of ‘Cambridge Scarlet’, most selections of Monarda are prone to powdery mildew, turning the plant into a mass of grayish white, curled leaves that soon drop. This infection can be reduced by increasing the movement of air (thinning every other plant stem), by removing diseased leaves (cut them back when mildew is noticed and next flush of growth should come back without it), and, most importantly, by choice of mildew-resistant selections, particularly ‘Colrain Red’, ‘Marshall’s Delight’, ‘Purple Mildew Resistant’, ‘Raspberry Wine’, ‘Rose queen’, ‘Rosy Purple’, ‘Violet Queen’, and Monarda fistulolsa f. albescens.
While we have planted these named cultivars in the past in our gardens, we must admit that labels have a tendency to get broken and the original plants die out; however, Monardas gently reseed themselves into our gardens in a myriad of scents and colors of flowers. After planting whatever selections you favor, just sit back and let nature work its magic to weave a tapestry of odors and colors. They also make great cut flowers—at the moment there are vases of different colors throughout the house and even on the back porch.
Annual or perennial to about 47 inches
Hardy to zone 4
Full sun to part shade
Moist, not constantly wet
Well-drained garden loam
Cultivation and propagation:
Cultivation is generally easy on moist, well-drained garden loam in full sun to part shade, depending upon the species. Hybrids that are red, derived from M. didyma, can grow in sun or some shade, prefer shade and deep humusy soil and plenty of moisture. Hybrids that tend to light lavender floral shades, derived from M. fistulosa, prefer very well-drained, gravelly soil in full sun.
Harvesting and preserving:
Harvest leaves fresh as you need them. These are very easily dried by hanging or laying over screens. The dried flower heads, sometimes tinged with reds and purples, also make beautiful dried flowers; use the red flowers in beverages, syrups, and desserts, and use the purple and pink cultivars with an oregano flavor in herb butters and cream cheese.
(While this has been revised and updated, the “we” here is excerpted from The Culinary Herbal by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker.)
Blondies with Monarda & Apricots
(or bergamot bars)
These are one of my favorite dessert bars; my daughters like them so much that Lucie requested to have them on the dessert table at her wedding. Right now is the time to make them—use leaves and red flowers. Orange mint can be substituted for the Monarda. This recipe is from Not Just Desserts—Sweet Herbal Recipes, which is available on my website. I have changed the recipe a bit—I use organic brown sugar and sometimes replace the granulated with coconut sugar—and I use half whole-wheat and half unbleached flour (although I often use all white, whole-wheat pastry flour). Recently I made them with dried, coarsely chopped cherries in place of the apricots.
Makes 32 bars
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
About 1 cup dried apricots
About 1/2 cup Monarda leaves and/or flowers, loosely packed
1 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 extra-large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When melted, add the brown sugar and stir. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until the brown sugar is thick and syrupy, for about 4 minutes. Stir in the granulated sugar until it is dissolved and remove the pan from the heat to cool; the fat will separate from the sugar.
Thinly slice the apricots crosswise. Wash, dry, and coarsely chop the Monarda leaves and flowers; there should be about 1/4 cup of chopped herb.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and stir to blend. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the flour mixture over the apricots and toss to coat them lightly.
Whisk the eggs, one at a time, into the warm brown sugar and butter mixture (it should not be hot) to blend thoroughly. Add the vanilla and stir well.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the flour and stir until it is just blended. Add the apricots and Monarda and stir until they are just mixed in. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated oven for 35 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown. Allow to cool completely on a baking rack before cutting into bars.
Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photographer whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker. Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching & writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell & taste.