How to Grow and Care for Bee Balm

Bee balm (Monarda spp.) flowers in bloom


Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images

As suggested by its name, bee balm plants are known for attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Even when the plant is not flowering, the seed heads will attract birds throughout the winter. Their vibrant flower heads are full of tubular petals that appear in pink, purple, red, and white varieties.

Part of the mint family, bee balm has a square stem and quick-spreading underground rhizomes. Both the flower and the foliage are aromatic and often used in herbal medicine, teas, and in culinary applications. It is a quick grower and spreader and can be planted in the spring or fall. 

Common Name Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot
Botanical Name Monarda
Family Lamiaceae
Plant Type Perennial, Herb
Mature Size 10-15 in. tall (dwarf), 2-4 ft. tall (standard), 18-24 in. wide (dwarf), 3-4 ft. wide (standard)
Sun Exposure Full, Partial
Soil Type Loamy, Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, Neutral
Bloom Time Summer, Fall
Flower Color Red, Pink, Purple, White
Hardiness Zones 3-9, USA
Native Area North America

Bee Balm Care

Bee balm is very easy to care for when provided with ideal growing conditions. These plants do best with loamy, moist soil, plenty of sunshine, and consistent water. Good airflow is important to avoid problems with powdery mildew, a common disease known to affect bee balm. Pests may include spider mites, aphids, and stalk borers. 

Bee balms can be planted in the fall or spring. If planting in the fall, it is best to trim the bee balm down to a couple of inches in height. This encourages the plant to focus its energy on root development so it can survive the winter.

Bee balm is a fast spreader, and under the right conditions it can take over a garden. However, because it is native to North America, it is not considered invasive.  

Light

Full sunlight is best for bee balm plants. They can be grown in partial shade, particularly in areas with intense summer heat. However, plants grown in partial shade may develop a leggy, stretched look and will not flower as vigorously.

Soil

Bee balms thrive in moist, well-draining, fertile soil and benefit from rich, organic matter, such as compost. These plants do not do well in soggy or dry soils. If your garden conditions tend to be dry, try adding a layer of mulch to help retain the proper amount of moisture in the soil.  

Water

A regular watering schedule is best for these plants, especially during the first year of growth. Bee balms need evenly moist soil and won’t do well with overwatering or neglect. Water these plants once the soil just begins to feel dry. To prevent problems with powdery mildew, water at ground level and avoid getting the foliage wet. 

Temperature and Humidity

Bee balms are very hardy, handling very cold and very hot temperatures in USDA growing zones 3 to 9. However, these plants do not fare well in high humidity conditions, as this can increase the incidence of powdery mildew. 

Fertilizer

Provide rich, fertile soil for the best growth of bee balm plants. Amend the soil yearly with compost or other organic materials to give this plant the nutrients it needs. Alternatively, a well-balanced fertilizer can also be used yearly. 

Types of Bee Balm

  • Monarda didyma: This variety of bee balm grows up to 3 or 4 feet tall and produces bright red blooms. 
  • Monarda pringlei: A smaller variety, these plants only reach a height of about 18 inches tall. It is often seen with red or pink blooms.  
  • Monarda fistulosa: This variety is often found growing wild. It produces beautiful pink, white, or purple blooms similar to the Monarda didyma variety. 

Pruning 

Light, yearly pruning can be done if you wish to keep this plant bushy. Simply pinch off the tips of the stems in the spring. Cut the bee balm down to a few inches in the fall to promote new growth in the spring. 

Propagating Bee Balm

Bee balm can be propagated through division and cuttings. The plant’s prolific nature makes division the easiest propagation method. This will also help to keep the plant healthy and full and should be done every few years. To do this, you will need a shovel, a pair of garden snips, compost or fertilizer, and gloves. Then follow the instructions below, depending on the propagation method you choose.

To propagate by means of division:

  1. Using the shovel, dig up the entire root system and gently lift the plant from the ground. 
  2. Once removed, use the shovel and the snips to divide the plant into multiple sections. If the center is woody and scraggly, remove it and discard.  
  3. Amend the soil with compost or well-balanced fertilizer and plant the divisions.

To propagate through cuttings, you will need a pair of snips, rich soil, a small pot, rooting hormone, a plastic bag, and a rubber band. Then follow these instructions:

  1. In the spring, trim a cutting of new growth around 6 inches long. Trim below a node.
  2. Remove the lower leaves. 
  3. Dip the cut end into rooting hormone and gently plant it into rich soil. 
  4. Water the cutting, then place the plastic bag over the cutting to retain moisture. Secure it to the pot with a rubber band. 
  5. Check the soil regularly, keeping it moist. 
  6. Roots should appear in 2 or 3 weeks. When this happens, remove the plastic bag.  

How to Grow Bee Balm From Seed

Starting bee balm from seed requires some patience, but the rewards are well worth the effort. To do this, follow these simple instructions.

  1. To get the seeds to germinate, they must go through cold stratification. To do this, either sow the seeds outdoors in the fall or place the seeds in the refrigerator in moist soil for at least one month. 
  2. In the spring, amend the soil with compost once it is workable. 
  3. Remove the seeds and sow them directly into the garden. Gently sow on top of the soil. Do not cover the seeds.  

Potting and Repotting

Bee balm generally does very well when grown in containers, particularly the dwarf varieties. When choosing a pot for bee balm, be sure it has good drainage holes. Because these plants do not have access to underground water sources, potted bee balm will need to be watered more often. Since bee balm is such a fast grower, these plants will need to be repotted or divided often, possibly every year. To repot, gently loosen the root system until it slides out of the pot. Amend a new, larger pot with rich soil and plant the bee balm. Water thoroughly.   

Overwintering

Bee balm is a very hardy perennial and requires no extra attention to keep it alive even through a cold winter.

How to Get Bee Balm to Bloom

Bee balm is known for its showy, bright flowers. These textured blooms are made up of tubular petals. As suggested by the name, these vibrant flowers attract bees as well as butterflies and hummingbirds. The flowers and foliage have a lovely, iconic aroma.  

Since these plants are prolific bloomers, continually cut and deadhead the flowers to encourage the plant to produce more. Planting bee balm in full sun will also encourage more blooming.  

Common Problems With Bee Balm

Bee balm is quite easy to grow and does not often present the gardener with many problems. However, some plants are plagued by powdery mildew or fail to produce a showy display of blooms.

Absence of Blooms

Bee balm may flower very little or not at all. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including too much humidity, not enough sunlight, over-fertilizing, or old age. If the plant is experiencing too much humidity, be sure to provide it with the best airflow possible. It may not require as much water. If it is growing in a shady location, try moving it to a sunnier location. If it is over-fertilized, cut back on fertilizer until more blooms appear. If old age is causing the plant to fade out, divide the plant to lengthen its life and encourage thick, new growth.

Powdery Mildew

This fungal disease is common among bee balms and can cause brown, wilted foliage that is covered in a gray powder. It often appears when there is high humidity and poor air circulation. To prevent this, be sure to keep plants well ventilated by pruning, dividing, and weeding. Water at ground level to avoid getting the foliage wet. If powdery mildew appears, treat it with a fungicide or other home remedy. Be sure to remove any fallen foliage. In fall, prune away all the affected stems and discard them.   

FAQ
  • Does bee balm spread?

    Bee balm is in the mint family and is known for spreading just as vigorously as other mint plants. It does this by means of underground rhizomes. 

  • Should bee balm be deadheaded?

    Yes. Deadheading bee balm will encourage the plant to produce more blooms. It will also keep the plant thick and lush.

  • Does bee balm like sun or shade?

    Bee balm does best in full sun. It can tolerate partial shade, but may become leggy or not flower as vigorously. However, in very hot climates, this plant will benefit from afternoon shade.