A perennial favorite, bee balm(Monarda spp.), aka wild bergamot, flowers in mid- to late summer. This native plant is beloved by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies! Learn how to plant and grow bee balm.
About Bee Balm
Bee balm is a Native American plant not only known for its attractive scarlet flowers that bloom in the summertime but also its fragrant foliage. Slender, tubular flowers are produced in 2- to 3-inch-wide flower heads in June and July. Flower colors include white, pink, red, lavender, and purple.
In the garden, its most frequent visitors are hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies because they have the long tongues required to reach the tubular flowers’ nectar. Bumblebees and a few other insects are too big to get into some of the smaller tubular flowers of some bee balms, so the insects practice something called “nectar robbing.” The insects punch a tiny hole at the base of the flower to access the nectar, bypassing the flower’s pollen and “robbing” it of its nectar.
Bee balm performs best in full sun (at least 6 hours). It will grow in partial shade but won’t flower as well and is more susceptible to powdery mildew. Provide moist, well-draining soil with a neutral pH. Amend soil with compost or aged manure, if necessary.
When to Plant Bee Balm
Bee balm can be planted in the spring or in the fall.
Spring is the best time to divide existing plants and transplant them.
How to Plant Bee Balm
Give careful thought to placement. Without good air circulation, the leaves can develop powdery mildew, a fungal disease. (Reduce watering if this appears.) Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart.
Water thoroughly at the time of planting.
Keep soil evenly moist throughout the growing season, watering every 7 to 10 days during dry periods. Soak to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. Add mulch to preserve moisture and control weeds.
Avoid fertilizer in general; apply only a sprinkling of a balanced product in spring, if desired. An excess can promote rampant leaf growth and powdery mildew.
Deadhead faded blooms to encourage the plant to re-bloom in late summer. Deadheading the main stem allows the side shoots to develop and bloom. These, too, can be cut when flowers reach the size you want.
After the first frost in the fall, leave seed heads for the birds or cut stems back to about 2 inches above the soil. (See local frost dates.)
Divide every 2 to 3 years to ensure its vigor. (Clumps tend to die out from the center.)
Monarda didyma is bright red and grows 3 to 4 feet tall.
M. didyma varieties that are resistant to powdery mildew include ‘Marshall’s Delight’ (bright pink), ‘Jacob Cline’ (deep red), and ‘Raspberry Wine’ (dark red).
M. fistulosa produces lavender-pink blooms in late summer; tolerant of dry soils; commonly called “wild bergamot.”
M. pringleigrows 18 inches tall and is immune to powdery mildew. ‘Petite Wonder’ and ‘Petite Delight’ are pink varieties.
Bee balm is a lovely cut flower. The leaves are aromatic, which adds interest to an indoor arrangement. Cut the main stem flower just as it begins to open up. The plant’s side shoots will continue to develop and bloom. The side shoots can be cut for indoor enjoyment, too. Vase life is 7 days.
Wit and Wisdom
The common name of bee balm is in reference to its former use to treat bee stings!
Native Americans and early colonists used bee balm leaves and flowers to make a variety of medicinal salves and drinks.
The Native American word for a river in New York became part of the name of a bee balm drink: Oswego tea.
Bee balm is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Its foliage has a strong aroma and is sometimes used in herbal teas, salads, and as garnishes. The flowers are also edible.
Although called “wild bergamot,” bee balm is not used in “bergamot” (Earl Grey) tea, which is made with oils extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a citrus fruit.