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.
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 a 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.