Prized for their bright, vibrant flowers, bee balm plants are herbaceous perennials native to North America. Interestingly enough, they're also considered herbs—bee balm is actually part of the mint family, boasting aromatic leaves and many culinary and medicinal uses.
Best planted in the spring or fall, bee balm plants will produce clusters of scarlet, pink, or purple 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 a variety of wildlife to the garden landscape (among them, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds). Plus, if you're looking for a pick that imparts long-lasting color to your garden, bee balm may just be it—the plants are long-blooming perennials that grow quickly and can reach up to three feet or more in height.
|Botanical Name||Monarda didyma|
|Common Name||Bee balm, scarlet bee balm, red bee balm, Oswego tea, bergamot|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||2–4 ft. tall, 2–3 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, partial shade|
|Soil Type||Rich, moist|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic|
|Flower Color||Red, purple, pink|
|Hardiness Zones||4–9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
Bee Balm Care
If you're looking for that cottage garden feel, look no further than the bee balm plant. The American native supplies gardeners with seasons worth of beauty, fragrance, and wildlife for very little effort. They flower in full sun to partial shade and grow best in moist soil, though they can handle a variety of conditions.
In addition to the bee balm's employment for aesthetic purposes in the landscape, it is also 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, it can also be 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 nearby plants.
Bee balm has a tendency to spread aggressively if left to its own devices, so you should divide the plants every few years in early spring to prevent them from taking over (unless you want that). Additionally, deadheading the flowers will help to promote re-blooming.
Thought bee balm can handle partial shade, it will thrive best if it receives at least six hours of full sun daily. Too much shade is known to make the plant leggy over time, and can often reduce the number or vibrancy of its blooms. However, bee balm plants grown in hotter climates can sustain a bit more shade than is typical.
In order for your bee balm to thrive, you should plant it in soil that is rich, moist, and has a pH level of 6.0 to 7.0. If necessary, poor soil can be amended with compost or manure to enrich it, loosen it up, and make it more amenable to growing bee balm. You can also add a layer of mulch atop your soil to ensure the shallow-rooted plant stays moist and doesn't choke itself out.
Bee balm is a moisture-loving plant and enjoys having consistently wet soil. Because of this, depending on your climate and area, you should plan to water the plant frequently (potentially weekly), never allowing the soil to dry out. It's especially important to maintain a proper watering cadence in the plant's first year, as that allows it to establish a solid root system.
Temperature and Humidity
Bee balm is not particularly picky about its temperature or humidity conditions, so long as it's planted in the proper USDA zones. That being said, new seeds should not be started until the ground temperature has reached at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Though not imperative to the plant's success, you can feed your bee balm plants with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer each spring for an added dose of nutrition.
Pruning Bee Balm
Bee balm lovers often embrace the wild, cottage feel of the plant, but it should still be periodically pruned to ensure the best chance at success. Deadhead the flowers immediately after blooming to prolong the seasonal flowering and prevent them from self-seeding (unless desired).
Additionally, you should weed the base of the plant periodically to avoid any invaders from choking out its shallow roots.
Common Pests and Diseases
Bee balm is susceptible to powdery mildew (a fungus that thrives in wet conditions), especially in late summer, when rain and humidity team together and can cause issues for the dense plants. 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. Alternatively, if your bee balm plants 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 at least two feet apart from one another, and divided so that air circulates well around them. You can also place your garden hose at the base of the plants when watering, rather than watering from above, which moistens the leaves unnecessarily.