Bee balm, also known as Monarda, is a favorite perennial flower and herb much loved by humans and wildlife alike. It blooms with fantastic color in shades of red, pink, and purple.
Not only is bee balm a beautiful ornamental plant, it’s also edible, fragrant, and has medicinal value. This is one plant you don’t want to leave out of your garden.
If you’re ready for vibrantly colored blooms that return year after year with little effort, here’s what you need to know about how to grow and care for bee balm.
Why Grow Bee Balm?
There are many reasons to grow bee balm. For one, it’s an easy to grow plant and a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.
Monarda will bloom throughout summer and into fall. It gives a splash of warm color to your garden and works especially well as a mid-border plant. You can grow it with other sun-loving perennials like phlox or plant it in front of daylilies or echinacea.
Many types of Monarda also make a great addition to an herb or vegetable garden.
The leaves of bee balm are very fragrant and will give off an aromatic scent when brushed or warmed by the sun. Monarda belongs to the mint family, explaining its scented leaves and easy-to-grow habit.
Bee balm is a lovely plant that’s attractive to both humans and pollinators. Bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies are all drawn to its blooms.
Besides providing joyful color in your garden, both the leaves and flowers of bee balm are edible. The blooms make an eye-catching garnish in salads, and the leaves can be used to make a very aromatic herbal tea.
True to its name, bee balm also attracts many pollinators, including bees. You’re likely to see hummingbirds and butterflies drawn to it during the summer and birds coming for the seeds in fall and winter.
Monarda is really an all-around plant, suitable for an ornamental landscape, herb and vegetable gardens, and pollinator gardens.
Bee Balm History
The Monarda genus got its name after the Spanish botanist and physician Nocholas Monardes. He published some of the first books specifically for Native American plants during the late 1500s. However, prior to this, Native American Tribes in Canada and Eastern North America used bee balm medicinally for a variety of illnesses and ailments for centuries.
Bee Balm is Monarda didyma common, and it got this name because it was popular to use to soothe bee stings. In the eastern portion of the United States, Native American tribes used it to remove the pain associated with bee stings by crushing the leaves before rubbing it into the skin. Native Americans who lived in upstate New York showed settlers how to use it to make herbal tea, and this is how Oswego tea came about. It was a popular replacement for black tea after the Boston Tea Party happened.
Varieties of Bee Balm
There are many different cultivars (over 50) of bee balm available, so you have a lot of choice for size, color, etc.
Full-sized varieties will grow about 2-4’ tall and will spread about the same distance. There are also dwarf varieties that will only grow about 15-18” tall and spread about 2’.
Here are some popular choices:
- Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)- This variety is a native plant to North America and named because the fragrance of its leaves is reminiscent of bergamot (a type of citrus fruit, the oil of which is used to flavor Earl Grey tea). It grows 36-48” tall, blooms with lavender flowers, and attracts many different pollinators.
- ‘Jacob Cline’ or ‘Raspberry Wine’- For striking red blooms, try one of these two cultivars of Monarda didyma. Jacob Cline has large, bright to deep red flowers, is very showy, and is favored by hummingbirds. Raspberry Wine has darker, purple-red flowers that will put on a show all summer.
‘Jacob Cline’ and ‘Raspberry Wine’ are red-blooming cultivars that are especially attractive to hummingbirds. If you have a small garden space, you may favor dwarf varieties that won’t grow as tall.
- Dwarf Bee Balm– If you’re short on space or want to add Monarda to a container garden, getting a dwarf variety is a good idea. Two of the most popular dwarf cultivars are ‘Petite Wonder’ and ‘Petite Delight.’ Both have pink blooms and won’t grow past 18” in height. For a mid-sized cultivar, try ‘Bee’s Knees’ with scarlet blooms and a height of 16-20”.
- ‘Beauty of Cobham’- Another cultivar of Monarda didyma, Beauty of Cobham is an award-winning variety with beautiful pink-purple flowers and one of the longest blooming periods (early summer to early fall). It grows about 3’ tall and is very attractive to bees and other pollinators.
- Lemon Bergamot (Monarda citriodora)- If you want a variety of bee balm with plenty of aroma and flavor, this variety is one of the best choices. Also called lemon mint, this bee balm is not as showy as the others, but the leaves have a lovely lemony and minty flavor and scent. This is a perfect choice for using in teas or potpourri and is very hardy.
How to Grow Bee Balm
Bee balm is easiest to grow from a seedling or by dividing mature plants. However, you can also be successful at growing it from seed as long as you take the right steps.
Starting from Seed
There are two ways to grow bee balm from seed. You can start the seeds indoors about 8 weeks before your average last spring frost date, or you can sow the seeds directly into a garden area.
Whichever method you choose, it’s best to stratify the seeds before sowing them. This is done to mimic the cold winter the seeds would naturally go through outdoors. You can skip this step if you don’t have the time, but your germination rate might suffer.
To stratify bee balm seeds, you can place them in a plastic bag with a slightly moistened medium like sand. Seal the bag and keep it in your refrigerator for 1-3 months.
To start seeds indoors, sow them in trays filled with a good quality seed starting mix 6-8 weeks before you plan to plant them outside. Monarda seeds require light to germinate, so all you need to do is place them on top of the soil (don’t cover them).
Germination can take anywhere from 10-40 days depending on the variety, so be patient and keep the soil damp but not soaking wet while you wait.
Once your seedlings sprout, keep them under fluorescent lights as they grow and water as often as needed so that the soil doesn’t dry out. Make sure they get good airflow to prevent damping off (a fungal disease), and harden them off a week before planting.
Alternatively, you can sow the seeds directly into a prepared spot in your garden in early spring. You’ll need to thin the seedlings once they sprout and keep the soil from drying out.
If you know someone who has bee balm or if you have an established patch and want more, you can easily divide it to get new plants.
Division is best done in the spring but can also be done in the cool weather of the fall.
Dividing established plants is an easy way to get some new bee balm for your garden. Make sure the clumps you divide are at least 2-3 years old and plant divisions right away.
All you need to do is dig up the plants you want to divide, making sure they are at least 2-3 years old. Shake or brush off any loose dirt so that you can see the roots more easily.
Then, pull the plants apart into smaller sections, each with at least a few inches of roots attached. You can use sanitized pruning shears to cut through any larger roots, and trim off any broken or damaged stems after dividing.
Immediately plant your newly divided bee balm into your garden or containers.
Planting Bee Balm
Whether you started from seed, divided old plants, or bought some seedlings from a nursery, planting bee balm is very straightforward.
Depending on the variety you’re planting, you’ll want to space transplants at least 18-24” apart. Bee balm will grow in a wide range of soils but does not like overly wet soil and will benefit from the addition of some homemade compost mixed into the soil.
The best spot for your Monarda is in full sun. It will tolerate some shade (especially during the afternoon in hot climates), but may start getting leggy without enough sun.
Planting in full sun allows Monarda to grow at its best and to full size. It can tolerate some shade but may start to get leggy as it reaches out for sunlight.
After adding compost if needed, plant your seedlings with the proper spacing, loosening the roots before putting them in the ground. Mulch around them lightly and water thoroughly.
The best time for planting is in the spring, but you can plant in fall if needed. If you do a fall planting, trim off any flowers so that the plant can focus on establishing its root system before winter.
Growing Bee Balm in Containers
If you are short on space, bee balm can make an excellent plant for a container garden. The dwarf varieties are especially suited for being grown in pots, but you can give any of the varieties a try.
Because Monarda is in the mint family, it spreads easily in the garden and can get out of hand, though it’s not as aggressive as certain mints. Keeping it in a container avoids this problem.
You’ll want to use fairly large pots for the large bee balm varieties and medium to large pots for the dwarf varieties. Fill your pots up with a good quality potting mix that has been already moistened with water.
Plant seedlings one per pot and loosen the roots before planting. Lightly firm the soil around each plant with your hands and water in thoroughly.
Keep in mind that soil in containers will dry out more quickly than soil in the ground. It’s a good idea to lightly mulch around the bee balm or use a living mulch like oregano or another trailing herb.
Dwarf Monardas work especially well in containers. They’ll provide color throughout the summer and will also attract some visitors like bumblebees.
With the right care, your bee balm will soon provide a splash of color to your patio or container garden!
Caring for Bee Balm
Once established, bee balm is very easy to care for.
During the first few weeks, you’ll want to make sure your seedlings are well watered so that their roots can get established. After that, you’ll want to water them during any prolonged drought period for the first year.
To help keep moisture in the soil and to help control weeds, you can keep a thin layer of mulch around your plants.
In normal soils, bee balm will not need any fertilizer. If you know that your soil is nutrient deficient, you can regularly topdress it with compost or rotted manure. You can also add a balanced organic fertilizer as needed.
Deadheading blooms throughout the season will encourage your plants to keep flowering. If you keep on top of it, your Monarda will bloom through late summer and maybe into early fall.
Bee balm does best if it’s divided every 2-3 years. Once your clump is a few years old, you can divide it into smaller clumps to plant elsewhere in your garden or to give away. If you notice that plants start losing their vigor, they likely haven’t been divided in a while.
Deadheading blossoms is one of the best things you can do for your plants to keep them constantly blooming. If you deadhead regularly, you can expect your bee balm to flower all summer and into fall.
Some gardeners recommend cutting stems back to a few inches above the ground after the first hard frost. You can do this to make plants look neater or leave the seed heads on over the winter for the birds.
Bee balm will occasionally be affected by aphids and a few other insects, but the biggest problem is powdery mildew.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that is more likely to occur when heat and humidity are high. It will appear as a gray or white powdery “dust” on the leaves of your plants.
The best prevention for powdery mildew is to make sure plants are properly spaced so that they get good airflow and aren’t overwatered. When watering plants yourself, avoid getting the foliage wet, and only water the soil around the roots.
Weather conditions, on the other hand, are beyond your control. If you live in a place with humid weather, mildew is likely to show up at some point.
If it does, you can spray the affected leaves with a solution of 3 tablespoons of baking soda, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, and a few drops of natural liquid dish soap mixed into 1 gallon of water.
Powdery mildew is the most likely pest or disease to attack your bee balm. It’s most likely to develop in hot and humid conditions and can be controlled with a DIY baking soda spray.
Spray in the morning or late evening to avoid spraying during the hot part of the day. Plan to spray once a week in dry conditions, but be sure to reapply after a rain shower.
Finally, make sure you clean up all dead leaves and debris in the fall and do not put them in your compost pile. The spores of powdery mildew can overwinter in soil and debris, so make sure you get as much of it as possible out of your garden.
Other Growing and Care Tips
Here are a few more tips for growing and taking care of your bee balm:
- Monarda makes an excellent companion plant for both ornamental and vegetable gardens. It draws pollinators in that will go on to pollinate your other plants and complements a wide range of plants. Try planting it around the border of your garden or mixed in with herbs like basil, thyme, oregano, dill, and mints.
- Most varieties of bee balm will not need staking, but some of the taller varieties might. If you notice plants flopping over or if you live somewhere with frequent high winds, use stakes and string around each clump to keep plants upright.
- If you live somewhere with high humidity, consider buying a powdery mildew resistant variety. ‘Petite Wonder’ and ‘Petite Delight’ are strongly resistant, and ‘Jacob Cline’, ‘Raspberry Wine’, and ‘Marshall’s Delight’ also have good resistance.
Harvesting and Using Bee Balm
Once your plants start flowering, you can either just sit back and enjoy the show or harvest some leaves and flowers to use.
There’s lots you can do with the flowers and leaves of bee balm. You can add them to salads, make tea, or use them in a flower arrangement.
The blooms can be very attractive in a flower arrangement or vase and are also edible. Harvest them when they are in full bloom by cutting stems 6-8” below the flower. Avoid overharvesting during their first year of growth.
Leaves and individual blooms (without the stem) can be picked anytime, except you should only harvest a few leaves during the first year of growth.
Leaves and blossoms can both be used to garnish salads or steeped in hot water to make tea. For a fancier use, you can crystallize flowers and use them to decorate cakes, cookies, and other desserts.
You can also dry whole stems of bee balm with both leaves and flowers still attached for use later.
Preserving Bee Balm Leaves
Gather your harvested bee balm by the stems, tie the ends, and hang them up to dry out. You can also pick the leaves and petals straight from the plant’s stalks, spread them out in a single layer on a piece of screen, and let them dry in a cool, dry area away from the sunlight and dust. It can take one to two weeks to dry, depending on the humidity level of your chosen area.
However, the fastest way to dry it to preserve it is to use a dehydrator. Spread the leaves out in a single layer on the screens and set it to dry at a lower temperature. Check on them every 30 minutes until they’re dried out. Crush a leaf or two to see if they’re dry. They should crumble easily if they are. Once the leaves dry out, you can store them lightly packed into a glass jar in a cool dry space. Try not to crush them until you’re ready to use them to preserve the flavor.
Creating a Bee Balm Extract
You can preserve and use this herb as an extract or tincture, just like you can lavender. You can use this extract for a range of things, including topically on your skin. Also, an extract will ensure that this herb is available whenever you want to use it all year-round.
Step One – Dry the Bee Balm
The first thing you want to do is dry out the bee balm because this will give you the strongest extract possible with the longest shelf life. When the bee balm is blooming, harvest a bundle of the flowers and leaves on the stems. You can hang them to dry or use the method we outlined above to dry them out completely.
Step Two – Make the Extract
Once the bee balm dries out completely, you want to crumble the flower tops and the leaves into a dry, clean glass canning jar until you get the jar half full. Add enough unflavored vodka or brandy to the jar to cover the bee balm until the liquid is an inch over it. The alcohol will give the extract the long shelf life while pulling out the bee balm’s beneficial properties.
Step Three – Allow it to Seep
Put an airtight lid on your canning jar and shake the alcohol and herbs gently to combine them. Allow the mixture to soak for four weeks. You do want to check it once a day while it soaks and add more alcohol if necessary to keep your bee balm covered. Give it a light shake each day when you check it.
Step Four – Strain the Mixture and Bottle It
When the four weeks come and go, you want to take the lid off and carefully strain the herbs from the alcohol. Bottle it in an amber glass bottle, label it, and date it. Most extracts last at least two years, and you can use anywhere from 1 to 3 drops at a time up to 30 to 60 drops at once, depending on your application.
Five Ways to Use Bee Balm
Bee balm is an edible herb that has a huge range of potential uses associated with it. If you’re not sure what to do with the huge amount you have in your yard but you don’t want to see it go to waste, you can take a look at the following ways to use it to get inspired.
You can easily pull the petals of the bee balm flower off and dry them to make a gorgeous red tea. You can also use the petals fresh when they’re in season. It can help to relieve upset stomach, nausea, and gas because it’s a digestive aid. It does take a bit longer to finish steeping than your standard black tea, so you want to wait at least 15 minutes. Add a tablespoon of dried flower petals or two tablespoons of fresh ones to a cup of water. The water should be just below the boiling point because the petals are more delicate than any tea you make with stems or roots.
Historically, the Herbal Academy claims that people used a bee balm poultice to help with headaches, sore eyes, fungal infections, muscle spasms, and under bandages to slow the bleeding. You boil the leaves and wrap them in cloth before putting them on the affected area.
You can add flavor, nutrition, and a bright pop of color to your summer salads by adding a few petals from the bee balm plant. You’ll get a very delicate herbal flavor that compliments mesclun and microgreen salads well. It may not be strong enough to go in a romaine-based salad though.
Lavender is a very popular flower to use in skincare products, but it also comes with an extremely strong floral smell. You can swap out lavender for bee balm. One way to do this is to make a tea from bee balm flowers and leaves and allow it to cool. Once the infusion cools, you can apply it topically. It can give you a soothing wash for minor sunburns, and it works well for boils, cuts, and skin care needs.
Many people think that making jelly is complicated, but a bee balm jelly is a mix of pectin, sugar, and the bee balm petal tea. It looks pretty in the jar, and you get a very light honey flavoring with a slight hint of mint. You can put it on toast by itself, or it works very well if you mix it with cream cheese. This is a great way to give gifts, and it’s one way to use up those excess petals you have around.
Bee Balm Frequently Asked Questions
Goldmelissesorbet – Bee Balm Sorbet by Franziska Geiser / CC BY-NC 2.0 Since this is such a popular plant, it’s not uncommon for many people to have questions about it. We’ve picked out a few popular ones and answered them for you below.
- Does bee balm spread?
Bee balm can easily grow up to four feet tall, and it has a spread of three to four feet. However, you can invest in dwarf varieties if you’re short on space that get 15-inches tall and 18 to 24-inches wide.
- Does bee balm come back each year?
Yes. Bee balm is a perennial that will come back by itself to your garden each year without you having to do anything special. It provides a welcome pop of cheerful color to the garden or yard without taking over.
- Should you deadhead bee balm?
If you want to encourage pretty clusters of flowers all season long, you’ll want to make a point to deadhead the plant repeatedly as the flowers die. Doing so will encourage the plant to produce more flowers.
- Is bee balm poisonous to pets?
Bee balm leaves and flowers are edible, and eating them generally won’t have any ill effects on your dogs or cats. However, if your pet eats a large amount of the plant, it can cause mild digestive upset.