Red Bee Balm Plants

Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds

Image of red bee balm plant.
Some think of red bee balm as a perennial, others as an herb. Both are right. David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy, Classification of Red Bee Balm

Plant taxonomy classifies red bee balm plants (alternatively termed "scarlet") as Monarda didyma. "Oswego tea" is another common name. 'Cambridge Scarlet' is a popular cultivar with red flowers. Meanwhile, the similar plants with lavender flowers are also popular; classified as Monarda fistulosa, they go by the common name "wild bergamot."

Monarda didyma plants are herbaceous perennials.

They are also considered "herbs" in the sense that they have been put to culinary and medicinal uses. They are, indeed, in the mint family; their aromatic leaves have a minty fragrance.

Characteristics of Red Bee Balm, Best Feature

Red bee balm plants produce clusters of scarlet, tubular flowers in mid to late summer. These long-blooming perennials can reach 3 feet or more in height.

What is the best feature of these plants? This will depend on your gardening interests. If you simply enjoy beautiful flowers, then the "spiky hairdo" of the unusual flower clusters will be a chief selling point. If you seek plants that attract wildlife, then you, too have a reason to grow this perennial (see below). Herb aficionados, meanwhile, have their own reasons for growing Monarda didyma flowers (see below).

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements for Red Bee Balm

Red bee balm plants can be grown in planting zones 4-9.

These flowers are indigenous to eastern North America.

Plant Monarda didyma flowers in full sun to partial shade and in a moist soil. You can use soil amendments such as compost to enrich and loosen the soil for your Monarda didyma plants. But they will not spread as far in a clayey soil, which may or may not be a good thing.

Uses in Landscaping, in the Medicine Cabinet

These flowers are also a useful option in moist spots where other perennials might struggle, as they are fine plants for wet ground. In addition to their employment for aesthetic purposes in the landscape, these plants have culinary and medicinal uses. "Culinary herb growers will love the refreshing, unique taste of bee balm in tea," says one expert on herbs, who adds that, medicinally, Monarda didyma "is used as a skin wash for rashes and other irritations." Indeed, the pulverized leaves truly can be used as a "balm" to treat bee stings (thus the primary common name).

Looking for plants to attract hummingbirds and butterflies? Red bee balm is commonly grown for just this purpose. It also attracts bees to help pollinate your other plants.

Plant Care

Divide these plants every few years in early spring to counteract their tendency to spread aggressively. Deadhead bee balm flowers to promote re-blooming.

They are susceptible to powdery mildew, especially in late summer. If your Monarda didyma plants succumb to powdery mildew after you have had a chance to enjoy the flowers for a while, it may be best to trim them back to the ground and properly dispose of the cut growth (do not place it in the compost bin).

Alternatively, if they come down with powdery mildew too early and cutting the plants down is out of the question, try spraying with a solution that is three parts water to one part milk. 

To avoid powdery mildew in the first place, keep these perennials spaced and divided so that air circulates around them better. Another prevention tip is to place your garden hose at the base of the plants when watering, rather than watering from above (which moistens the leaves unnecessarily). Powdery mildew is a type of fungus, and fungi thrive in wet conditions.

For information on possible companion plants, see this list of native perennials for sun gardens.