Bee balm is a vital element in summer gardens, combining beautifully with other perennials, ornamental grasses, and annuals. The aromatic foliage adds garden fragrance: You may recognize the scent from Earl Grey tea, which gets its unique flavor from oil of bergamot (another name for bee balm). The crownlike flowers in eye-catching shades of red, pink, and purple can bloom for more than a month.
Common name: Bee balm
Botanical name: Monarda didyma
Plant type: Herbaceous perennial
Zones: 4 to 9
Height: 3 feet
Family: Lamiaceae, mint family
- Sun: Full sun is best, but bee balm will also grow in partial shade.
- Soil: Moist, organic soil is best. Overly soggy soil in the winter can lead to root rot.
- Moisture: Bee balm prefers even moisture through the growing season. Drought can stress plants, making them more susceptible to leaf diseases.
- Mulch: Either no mulch or a thin (1 inch) layer of fine-textured mulch such as shredded leaves.
- Pruning: If you want more compact plants, cut back bee balm in spring when new growth is about 12 inches tall. Cut off 4 to 6 inches of the top growth. This will delay blooming by 1 or 2 weeks.
- Fertilizer: No fertilizer or one light application per year. Avoid applying too much nitrogen, since this can make the plants lanky and prone to disease.
- Bee balm spreads quickly by sending out underground rhizomes. Divide plants every three years, or just dig sections from the outer edge to transplant elsewhere.
- The species can be started from seed, but mildew-resistant cultivars from divisions are a better choice for most gardens.
Pests and diseases
- Powdery mildew is common on bee balm. Infected foliage shows gray-white fungal spots; severely infected leaves may look all white. To reduce this problem, select bee balm cultivars with better mildew resistance (see list below) and plant in an area with plenty of air circulation.
- The vibrant reds, pinks, and purples of bee balm flowers combine beautifully with ornamental grasses such as ‘Karl Foerster' feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster'), flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurescens'), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).
- Bee balm is a nectar-filled favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.
- Plant bee balm along a garden path so you can appreciate the scent of the fragrant foliage as you brush past it.
- Many cultivars are hybrids of Monarda didyma and M. fistulosa (wild bergamot).
- ‘Colrain Red' – deep purplish red flowers, mildew resistant
- ‘Jacob Cline' – large, bright red flowers, mildew resistant
- ‘Marshall's Delight' – lavender-pink flowers, mildew resistant
- ‘Petite Delight' – compact, 16-inch-tall plants, lavender-rose flowers, fair mildew resistance
- ‘Purple Mildew Resistant' – strong purple flowers, mildew resistant
- ‘Raspberry Wine' – strong purplish red flowers, mildew resistant
- ‘Rose Queen' – purplish red flowers, mildew resistant
- ‘Violet Queen' - strong purple flowers, mildew resistant
All in the family
- Bee balm has distinctly square stems, a sure-fire tip-off that it is a member of the mint family. Other family members include salvia, rosemary, lavender, mint, and ajuga.
- There are about 15 species of Monarda. Monarda didyma and M. fistulosa (wild bergamot) are the most common in cultivation. Both are native to eastern North America.
(Text and photo by Nancy Rose)