More and more gardeners are creating cultivated spaces deliberately to attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. If you’d like to encourage visits to your garden from these lovely and vital creatures, try adding bee balm. This fast-growing perennial is a beautiful solution for adding color and whimsy to your garden or for making tea, garnishes, or potpourri. It’s blooms resemble fireworks, erupting in shades of purple, red, pink, and white in mid-summer and continuing into the early fall.
Whether you’re growing an herb garden, a wildlife garden, or just want to add some color to your flower beds, bee balm or Monarda is a smart choice. Not only does this plant add a bit of fairy tale glam, but its care is simple and straightforward. Bee balm works as a border plant, along pathways, or in containers. Grow them in a cutting garden so that you have a fresh supply of gorgeous blooms to display in your home throughout the warmer months.
undefined undefined / Getty Images
Plant bee balm in full sun. Bee balm needs at least six to eight hours of sunlight every day to encourage its best flowering and to bring out its most vivid and beautiful colors. If you live in a locale where the summers are super hot, though, plant them in partial shade.
Bee balm tolerates dry roots but prefers rich, fertile, slightly alkaline, well-drained soil. Plant bee balm seeds in the spring, but stratify them first to bring on germination. If transplanting seedlings or setting newly purchased ones, plant them in the spring or fall. Prepare holes that are about a foot deep. When planting multiple bee balm plants, space them one to two feet apart to ensure good air circulation and room to grow. Working some compost into the soil before planting will provide a boost.
Because bee balm is a prairie flower, it tolerates both dry and wet conditions, depending on its species. While most bee balm varieties prefer moist soil, some don’t. Monarda bradburiana, or Easter bee balm, for example, prefers dry to medium moisture. It’s important not to overwater these plants, but try to keep the soil moist. A layer of mulch helps retain moisture and cuts down on watering.
Most bee balm varieties quickly grow to between two and four feet tall and spread rapidly. Prune your plants regularly to keep them under control. Pinch off about one-third of the stems’ first set of leaves each week for three consecutive weeks in early spring. This encourages a longer, more uniform display of the flowers in the upcoming season. Remember to remove, or deadhead, dead flowers as they fade to encourage new blooms. Once the blooming season is over, prune the plant to the ground to promote new shoots and leaves.
Red spider mites, whiteflies, slugs, and black spider mites are common pests to seek out bee balm. Insecticidal soaps or oils will get rid of them. Thrips can also be a problem, although some are beneficial because they feed on the other insects invading your plants. To control them, prune any injured parts of the plant or use a mild insecticidal soap or neem oil.
This gray, powdery film won’t kill bee balm, but it will cause the plant to drop its leaves. Powdery mildew thrives in high humidity, developing when there is poor air circulation around plants. The best way to get rid of the issue is to remove and destroy any affected leaves. Neem oil is also an effective treatment, but be careful not to get it on the plant’s buds or blooms. Newer varieties are mildew resistant.
If you need a deterrent to keep critters away from your plants, consider planting bee balm around them. Deer and rabbits don’t like the minty oregano-like smell the plant emits. You can also plant bee balm in your veggie garden to attract pollinators that will boost production. Pluck leaves from the plants and dry them to add to teas. Herbalists say bee balm tea is a soothing solution for colds, sore throats, headaches, and congestion. You can also dry the flowers and leaves to create an aromatic sachet or potpourri.
There are 21 species of flowering bee balm. One of the smaller varieties that grows in the mountain ranges of Mexico — the lavender-colored Monarda bartletti — only reaches a height of about four inches. Monarda citriodora, or lemon mint, grows tall, vertical, pinkish-purple flowers and is an excellent tea plant. Beauty of Cobham is a popular cultivar, an aromatic plant with purplish-green leaves and purplish-pink flowers. Gardenview Scarlet explodes in dazzling red blossoms that last for weeks.
Some people call bee balm “bergamot,” while others know it as “horsemint,” or “Oswego tea.” This plant is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, and is native to the prairies and wooded areas of North America. Not only did indigenous people use bee balm medicinally, but the English colonists also used its leaves to make tea. They discovered bee balm to be an excellent substitute for Bergamot orange, an ingredient in their beloved Earl Gray tea that was not available after the Boston Tea Party protest.