How to Grow and Care for Spotted Bee Balm

A Drought-Tolerant Monarda That Pollinators Love

Spotted bee balm

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There are different choices if you want to plant a bee balm (Monarda) in your yard. Spotted bee balm, also known as horsemint, might not be the most spectacular when it comes to color variety, yet it stands out from the rest of the bunch in other ways. 

Spotted bee balm is a multi-stemmed plant with purplish stems and narrow aromatic leaves. At the top of the stems sit the true flowers, yellowish and tubular in shape, and right below them are the large, colorful bracts. The leafy bracts are much more eye-catching and therefore often mistaken for the flowers. The bracts can vary in color from light pink and purple to creamy white. The true flowers and sometimes the bracts are spotted which give the plant its name. The showy stacked inflorescence of the spotted bee balm makes them excellent cut flowers. 

Monarda punctata is a pollinator magnet. It attracts bees, moths, and hummingbirds, as well as beneficial predatory wasps that can help reduce grubs and pest populations

Spotted bee balm being a prairie plant, it is more drought-tolerant than other Monarda species.

Common name Spotted bee balm, dotted bee balm, horsemint, spotted horsemint
Botanical Name Monarda punctata
Family Lamiaceae
 Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size 18 in.-3 ft. tall, 12-18 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type  Loamy, sandy, silt, well-drained
Soil pH  Neutral
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Pink, yellow, purple
Hardiness Zones 3-8 (USDA)
Native Area North America
Scoliid wasp flying and hovering over spotted bee balm
Scoliid wasp flying and hovering over spotted bee balm

Dan Rieck / Getty Images

 Bee Balm Care 

Spotted bee balm is a native plant that offers gardeners maximum pollinator value for minimum effort. It is a perennial albeit a short-lived one. if you want its continuous presence in your yard every summer, you might have to divide an existing plant, or start a new plant from seeds every couple of years although chances are that if you don’t remove the seed heads, volunteer seedlings will pop up in your flower beds in the following spring. 

While humans appreciate the aromatic foliage of spotted bee balm, deer, rabbits, and other voracious mammals will leave the plant alone because they are put off by the smell. 

Some people find spotted bee balm too untidy for a formal landscaping setting. That, of course, is a question of taste. If you want it in your yard, there is always the option to plant it in a sunny but less prominent location, such as along a fence line. 

Light

In order to thrive, spotted bee balm should be planted in full sun—at least six hours daily. Only if you are located in the upper end of the plant’s zone range (USDA zones 8), where summers are hot and dry, it might tolerate some afternoon shade without affecting its bloom. 

Soil

In its natural habitat, which includes prairies, rocky woodlands, and sandy coastal areas, spotted bee balm grows in dry, even somewhat poor soil in a neutral pH range (6.8-7.2). The soil does not necessarily need to be sandy but good drainage is crucial. 

Water

Unlike other bee balm species, spotted bee balm does not need watering except when newly planted until it’s established, and during periods of extended drought when its leaves are wilted or start dropping. Otherwise, spotted bee balm is fairly drought-tolerant. 

Temperature and Humidity

Spotted bee balm is quite adaptable when it comes to temperatures; it grows in a wide range of climate zones. High relative humidity, however, is its enemy. It causes the powdery mildew fungus, a notorious problem with bee balm, to produce more spores and spread. 

Fertilizer

In its native habitat, spotted bee balm can grow in poor soil. That’s why in a landscape or garden setting, it might not need any fertilizer at all, or at the most a single light feeding with a balanced fertilizer in the spring. If in doubt, it is better to fertilize less or not at all than to over-fertilize, as excess nitrogen can negatively affect flowering.

Spotted bee balm

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Varieties of Spotted Bee Balm

 Other Monarda species come in a wide range of cultivars and colors, not so spotted bee balm. There are two cultivars of note: 

  • ‘Fantasy’, a cultivar with showy pale-yellow flowers that have purple spotting, and pinkish-purple bracts. It grows 24-28 inches tall and spreads 2-3 ft. 
  • ‘BeeBop', an early-flowering compact cultivar that reaches 24 inches in height and spread. It has showy yellow flowers that grow in clusters above pink bracts.

 

Pruning

Spotted bee balm, because it has a branching, mounding growth habit, requires slightly different pruning than other bee balms. To encourage bushy, dense growth, pinch the upper buds of young plants, which encourages branching.

Deadheading spent flowers can prolong flowering, and it’s also a way to prevent the plant from reseeding itself in unwanted locations.

Propagating Spotted Bee Balm

Propagating spotted bee balm by division not only produces a new plant, or new plants, but it also rejuvenates it, as the center tends to die after a couple of years. 

  1. In the spring, when the plant starts growing, dig out the entire clump with a shovel.
  2. When you see new stems emerging from the ground, dig up the entire clump with a shovel.
  3. Using a sharp soil knife or a spade, divide the clump into sections. Make sure each section has at least two or three shoots and a good root system.
  4. Replant the sections in a new location at the same depth as the original plant. Water them well and keep them moist during the first growing season. 

How to Grow Spotted Bee Balm From Seed

If you have a spotted bee balm that is the straight species and not a cultivar, you can collect the seeds in the late summer or early fall to grow more plants that will look like the parent. The seeds do not need stratification. 

Start the seeds indoors about eight weeks before the last frost date in your area. Use small pots or seedling trays filled with sterile moistened potting mix. Place four or five of the tiny seeds in each pot, or two seeds in each seedling cell. Gently press them down and barely cover them, as the seeds need light to germinate. Place the pots or tray under growth lights in a room where the temperature is above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Mist the seeds with a spray bottle at least twice a day to keep the soil evenly moist. Before transplanting the seedlings outdoors after all danger of frost has passed, make sure to harden them off.

If you don’t have indoor growth lights, you can also start the seeds outdoors in the late spring, or when daytime temperatures consistently remain above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The procedure is the same as for indoor seed starting but remember that the soil dries out faster outdoors, so you need to water more often.

Spotted bee balm

© Arvind Balaraman / Getty Images

Potting and Repotting Spotted Bee Balm

Spotted bee balm can be grown in containers but because of its considerable spread, it requires a container with at least 5 or 10 gallons capacity, filled with well-draining potting mix. Although spotted bee balm is fairly drought tolerant, growing it in a container requires frequent watering. Check the moisture level daily to determine whether the plant needs watering.

Because spotted bee balm is a fast grower, the plant is likely to require repotting after two growing seasons to prevent it from becoming root-bound. 

Overwintering

Spotted bee balm is hardy to zone 3 and thus does not need any winter protection when grown in garden soil. The roots of container plants, on the other hand, need to be insulated against the freezing cold. Wrap the container with a double layer of burlap and bubble wrap or build an insulating silo for winterization. 

Common Plant Diseases 

Members of the Mondarda genus are generally not affected by serious pests and diseases but their weak spot is powdery mildew, a disease that causes a powdery white or gray residue on leaves in the late summer. Although spotted bee balm has excellent resistance to it, it can still get the fungus, especially if there is a lack of air circulation because of crowding, or in high humidity. Generous spacing helps is your first line of defense to avoid powdery mildew.

How to Get Spotted Bee Balm to Bloom

There is rarely an issue with spotted bee balm not blooming but if you don’t get any flowers, the cause is usually lack of sunlight. While spotted bee balm might grow (though rather leggy) in partial shade, it needs full sun to bloom.

Another potential reason for failure to bloom is that the soil might be too rich in nitrogen, which promotes foliage growth instead of flowers. Don’t fertilize the plant for the remainder of the growing season and the following spring, don’t apply fertilizer at all.

Also, if you started spotted bee balm from seed, you might not see the plant bloom in the first summer. 

Common Problems with Spotted Bee Balm

As valuable as spotted bee balm is as a pollinator plant, it can become unsightly in the late summer when the bloom is over, and the leaves turn yellow or drop so the plant looks bare. There is nothing in terms of care to be done at this point. With this seasonal decline in mind, it is best to plant spotted bee balm towards the back of a flower bed where it is somewhat disguised by other, more healthy-looking plants (and making sure there is good air circulation). The other thing you can do is cut down the stems to almost ground level (leave an inch or so as a marker). This will have no negative effect on its vegetative growth, and it will certainly fully bounce back next spring.

FAQ
  • Is spotted bee balm invasive?

    The plant easily self-seeds itself and like all bee balms, it spreads rapidly via underground stems or stolons but as a native plant, it is not considered invasive. To prevent it from taking over a flower bed, remove the spent flowers after the bloom and before they turn into seeds. You can also contain its vegetative growth by deeply spading around the plant and pull out and discard any stolons.

  • Is horsemint the same as bee balm?

    Horsemint is a type of bee balm. While all members of the Monarda genus are called bee balm, the name horsemint only refers to Monarda punctata.

  • Is spotted bee balm edible?

    Like all bee balms, both the flowers and the leaves of spotted bee balm are edible.

Article Sources
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  1. Monarda punctata. Mt. Cuba Center.

  2. Monarda punctata. NC State University Cooperative Extension.