Prized for their bright scarlet flowers, red bee balm plants are herbaceous perennials. They are also considered "herbs" in the sense that they have been put to culinary and medicinal uses. Red bee balm is part of the mint family, and its aromatic leaves have a minty fragrance.
Plant Taxonomy and Description
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. Similar plants with lavender flowers are also popular; classified as Monarda fistulosa, they go by the common name "wild bergamot."
Red bee balm plants produce clusters of scarlet, tubular flowers in mid to late summer. The distinctive "spiky hairdo" blooms are among their chief selling points, along with the plants' ability to attract wildlife and its culinary and medicinal uses. The plants are long-blooming perennials that can reach 3 feet or more in height.
Growing Red Bee Balm
Red bee balm plants are indigenous to eastern North America and can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 9. They flower in full sun to partial shade and grow best in moist soil. You can use soil amendments such as compost to enrich and loosen the soil for your Monarda didyma plants. They tend to spread less in a clayey soil, which may or may not be a good thing. These perennials are also useful in moist spots where other perennials might struggle, as they are fine plants for wet ground.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
In addition to their employment for aesthetic purposes in the landscape, red bee balm is an edible herb. Its flowers are used to garnish and flavor salads and other dishes, and it can be dried and used to make a spicy-sweet herbal tea. Medicinally, Monarda didyma is used to treat rashes and other skin irritations and can be made into a balm to treat bee stings (thus the primary common name). Hummingbirds and butterflies also like red bee balm, and it is commonly grown to attract bees, which help pollinate other plants.
Red bee balm has a tendency to spread aggressively, so you should divide the plants every few years in early spring to prevent them from taking over (unless you want that). Also, deadhead the flowers to promote re-blooming.
Bee balm is susceptible to powdery mildew, especially in late summer. If your plants succumb to powdery mildew after you have enjoyed 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. Also, 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.