Bee Balm 101: HOW & WHY You Should Grow This Native Plant!
So you want to know more about Bee Balm?
Well, you have come to the right place. Today, I have lots of information to share about Bee Balm, which is also known commonly as Monarda.
My post is organized into the following sections:
Why should you grow Bee Balm? (4 reasons)
Where can you find Bee Balm? (Includes recommended cultivars)
- 9 Fun Facts!
Let’s get started!
What is Bee Balm?
Bee Balm (Monarda) is an easy to grow perennial belonging to the mint family and is endemic to North America. The plant features long, twisted, or whorled flowers and can grow as large as three feet wide and four feet high. Most varieties produce bright-colored pink, purple, or red blossoms, but white is also common.
Since it is a perennial, you only have to plant it one time and then sit back and enjoy the blooms that come back year after year.
Monarda is most plentiful in the eastern half of the United States. It can be found anywhere from Maine to Minnesota in the north and as far south as the Gulf Coast. You’ll even find it in parts of eastern Mexico.
As a member of the mint family, Monarda produces a delightful aroma that some describe as a mixture between mint and orange. In fact, the plant has been nicknamed bergamot because of its similarities to the bergamot orange, which is used to provide flavor to Earl Gray tea. You may also hear Bee Balm referred to as horsemint or Oswego tea.
Why should you grow Bee Balm?
There are many reasons to grow Monarda in your backyard. Below are FOUR of my favorites!
1. Bee Balm Attracts Birds and Butterflies:
The main reason that I grow Bee Balm in my flower garden is to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and pollinator bees. When this NATIVE perennial is in full bloom, birds and insects won’t be able to resist visiting the nectar-rich flowers. Many people claim that Bee Balm is so effective at drawing in hummingbirds that they no longer have to worry about filling their feeders!
But birds don’t only enjoy Bee Balm in summer. You will also find that in the fall, quite a few different bird species coming in to dine on its nutlet. The nutlet is a large, hard-shelled seed that forms when the flowers turn into seed. The nutlet attracts finches, sparrows, juncos, redpolls, among other species.
Growing native plants, like Bee Balm, will increase the number of insects in your yard. And where there are more insects, you will naturally attract a larger number of bug-eating birds. My guess is that you will observe more birds just by adding some Monarda to your garden.
2. It’s a Beautiful Addition to Your Flower Garden:
In addition to attracting birds and bugs, Bee Balm is an attractive addition to any flower garden. Its colorful spikes are a great accent for hostas or flowering shrubs, to name just one example. Bee Balm is simple to grow in window boxes, flower beds, or containers and is a great way to dress up your herb garden.
- RELATED: How to Attract Butterflies: 17 Tips!
3. Mammals rarely eat Monarda:
Deer, rabbits, and other wildlife seldom eat Monarda. So you will not have to worry about them eating the beautiful flowers or have to cover them in netting.
4. It Has Surprising Health Benefits:
Bee Balm leaves make a refreshing tea that provides many health benefits. Its antimicrobial properties make it an excellent tool for warding off colds and the flu. Steaming the plant can also help clear nasal passages, while creating a poultice from Bee Balm could prove useful in treating headaches, sores, muscle cramps, or fungal infections. Lastly, Monarda can stimulate uterine contractions, so women who are expecting shouldn’t use it.
Bee Balm has edible properties as well. It’s a colorful topping for lettuce or other greens, and many enjoy adding it to fruit salads. You can use it along with apple cider vinegar to create a marinade or stew its blooms to make a jelly. Monarda can even be used in making cookies, brownies, muffins, or other baked goods.
How Do You Grow Bee Balm?
Since Bee Balm is a perennial, you can plant any time from after the last frost in spring until just before the first frost in fall. It blooms in mid to late summer, so you should keep this timeframe in mind if you want flowers in the first season.
Place your plants in full sun and leave between 18 and 24 inches apart. That way, you can make sure enough air can circulate around the plants so that mildew does not form on its leaves. Bee Balm also grows taller when it has been placed in full sunlight.
Water your Monarda at the time of planting, but do not overwater. You should ideally have soil that is evenly moist but not oversaturated.
Adding a thin layer of mulch will help hold moisture in so you will not need to water as often. Mulch is a must when you are planting in fall because it protects your plants from freezing.
How do you grow Monarda from seed? View seeds on Amazon
Most people purchase Bee Balm plants from a nursery, but you can also grow this perennial from seed. When doing so, start your seeds indoors in a sunny window between six and ten weeks before your last frost. Make sure your specimens are well established before planting them outdoors.
Use a fertile, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter. This plant prefers slightly acidic soil with a pH level of between 6.0 and 6.7. Most commercial potting soils can be used to grow Bee Balm in rather nicely.
Keep in mind that Bee Balm started from seed will not bloom the first year. So you should not worry if you do not see any blossoms. Avoid harvesting your Bee Balm so that it can become well established, and you should see plenty of bright, colorful blooms the second season.
When should you divide Bee Balm?
Bee Balm grows in clumps and spreads through underground rhizomes or stems. After spreading underground, the rhizomes will then put up new shoots so that the Bee Balm is continuously spreading. Mature plants sometimes resemble flowering bushes that are up to four feet high and have anywhere from 20 to 40 flowers.
To ensure the health of your plants (and keep your Bee Balm from overtaking your garden), you must split or divide the plants on occasion. Otherwise, your Monarda might crowd out some of your other garden plants.
Use care when dividing Bee Balm. Most horticulturists agree that timing is crucial, and recommend splitting Monarda in early spring before it has had a chance to bloom fully. To do so, you should:
- Cut around the plant with a hand spade. Go just deep enough that you can pull up the entire root ball but not much dirt below it.
- Lift the plant from its hole and shake off the dirt, which makes it easier for you to see the roots and know better where to divide it.
- Cut through the Bee Balm with a sharp knife so that it is in two to four equal sections, depending on how big the specimen is you want to divide.
- Replant only one of your divided sections into the original hole. Plant the others in another area of your yard, or give them away to someone else who is wanting to start a flower garden.
Dividing Bee Balm is something you will probably have to do only every two to three years. It is also something you shouldn’t ignore, as your plants might not provide as healthy or as many blooms if they become too crowded.
Deadheading and Cutting Back
Deadheading is a way to get even more flowers, which in turn will attract more hummingbirds and butterflies. The science behind deadheading is simple if you think about it.
The purpose of a flower is to eventually turn into a seed. Once this process has completed, the plant has no more need to create new blossoms. Deadheading simply means that once you start to see a flower wither and die, you cut off the flower so that it doesn’t produce any seeds! If your Monarda never creates any viable seeds, then it will continue to provide flowers to accomplish this goal.
Cutting back your Bee Balm is another way to encourage flower growth and keep your plants at a manageable size. For new plantings, trim stalks to around six inches in height once the plant has gotten about 12 inches tall. Near the end of summer, you can cut approximately one-third of the stems and flowers off the top. This will result in a second round of flowering, which will be somewhat less bountiful than the first but still lush enough to attract some wildlife.
Common Pests or Diseases on Bee Balm:
Bee Balm is subject to a few common pests, including:
- Spider mites
- Stalk borers
How can you tell if your plants are infested?
Aside from seeing the insects, you might notice signs they have been there, such as droppings or holes in your leaves. In the case of spider mites, which are too small for the human eye to see, you may notice yellow or brown spots as well as thin webs.
How do you get rid of pests on Bee Balm?
One reason this plant is called Bee Balm is that it attracts bees. So you should avoid using pesticides, as they can be harmful to bees as well as to the birds you are trying to entice. Fortunately, there are several horticultural oils, such as Neem Oil, that are effective against common garden pests such as aphids, yet are safe enough for hummingbirds and other winged creatures.
Insecticidal soaps come from either petroleum or plant oils and are used primarily to address plant-based fungus and disease. But they are also effective at getting rid of harmful insects like whiteflies without hurting beneficial insects such as ground beetles and hoverflies.
What diseases commonly affect Bee Balm?
As far as disease goes, Bee Balm is relatively resistant to most. The only one you are likely to encounter is powdery mildew, which appears as a thin white powder on the plant’s leaves. Powdery mildew can be potentially fatal to Monarda, but quick action can help you save your plants.
If you notice powdery mildew forming, go ahead and cut back the plant and thin out a few stalks from the middle. Allow a space of at least twelve inches between plants, if possible, which will help keep your mildew from spreading. The improved airflow will also help eliminate the spores you do have.
When thinning plants because of disease, do not replant the ones you have removed. Chances are they may also be infested, in which case your problem will only become worse. Rake up and remove any plant matter to contain the infection as much as possible.
Bee Balm is more susceptible to disease when it is overwatered or does not have good air circulation. This means that in most cases, you can prevent diseases such as powdery mildew by watering only as much as needed and thinning the stalks when they become too dense.
Where can you find and buy Bee Balm?
The best place to find Monarda is your local nursery or garden center. Most locations have plenty of varieties, and a knowledgable employee should be able to educate you on the recommended local cultivars for your specific region.
You can also purchase Bee Balm online. Believe it or not, Amazon has a large selection of both seeds and plants. Before searching and randomly buying some Bee Balm, please take a look at some of the recommended varieties below, or do some research on a type that does well wherever you live.
Lastly, some people prefer wild cultivars and therefore go looking for it in its natural habitat. You’re most likely to find wild Monarda in sunny, dry fields or open meadows. They are especially plentiful near limestone glades. If you do find Bee Balm in the wild, always consult with the property owner before digging it up.
There are currently dozens of Bee Balm varieties available commercially. Some of the most popular ones among home gardeners include:
- Monarda citriodora, also known as lemon Bee Balm or lemon mint. This variety produces purple blooms and has a very distinct lemon aroma when crushed.
- Monarda didyma, otherwise known as scarlet Bee Balm, scarlet Monarda, or “Jacob Cline”, turns out bright red flowers and is the variety most often used to make Oswego tea.
- Monarda punctata or Spotted Bee Balm, grows in hot and humid climates.
- Monarda media, which has square stems and is often called purple bergamot because of its purple flowers.
- Monarda clinopodia, which is sometimes called white bergamot. Another white variety, this is a hardy type that can grow in either sandy or loamy soils.
- Monarda bradburiana, a variety that produces white or light pink blooms with spotted petals and very oblong leaves.
- Monarda fistulosa, which is also called Wild Bergamont, has lavender, pink, or white blossoms that resemble pom-poms.
The above types of Monarda are just a small sampling. I can’t recommend enough that you go to a local garden center to see what is recommended for your region.
Here is what I currently have planted:
The cultivar of Bee Balm that is currently in my flower garden is Monarda didyma, otherwise known as “Jacob Cline.”
9 Fun Facts about Bee Balm
We’ve already talked about the benefits of Bee Balm when it comes to attracting birds and bugs. You’ve also learned a little about its various uses, including its health benefits and how to grow it. In case that wasn’t enough, here are some interesting facts about Bee Balm that I would like to share:
- #1. While its scent is attractive to humans, mosquitoes will not find the smell very pleasing. In fact, most of them go out of their way to try and avoid it. Bee Balm will repel these blood-sucking insects; however, it becomes most effective when the leaves are freshly crushed.
- #2. You may think that Bee Balm got its name from the fact that bees are attracted to the flowers. However, that is only partially true. The name actually comes from the fact that pioneers would use its leaves to help soothe bee stings, hence the name Bee Balm.
RELATED: 22 PROVEN Flowers That Attract BEES!
- #3. A Spanish botanist and author named Nicolas Monardes was one of the first to discover Bee Balm in the New World. He is the one for whom the Monarda genus is named.
- #4. The Oswego Indian tribe was known for making herbal tea using Bee Balm and taught early American settlers how to do so also. For this reason, tea made from its leaves is often referred to as “Oswego tea.”
- #5. Following the Boston Tea Party, Oswego tea became especially popular among colonists, who were looking for a substitute tea to drink that hadn’t been dumped into the harbor. Colonists who were interested in Oswego tea dug up plants from the wild. As those plants grew, they began dividing and sharing them with their neighbors. This was the beginning of cultivated Bee Balm as we know it today.
- #6. A great deal of cross-breeding has taken place, resulting in more than 50 different cultivars to date. Some of the newer varieties even have double flowers.
- #7. Bee Balm originated in the eastern United States but has since expanded westward and is now found in many states. Even those in drier, desert climates can grow Monarda if they provide sufficient water.
- #8. Despite having spread a considerable distance from its original location, the plant is still endemic to North America.
- #9. The Monarda genus does include a few annual specimens, although the majority of those cultivated for household use are perennials that come back year after year.
If you are looking for an attractive flower that will bring in lots of wildlife, Bee Balm is a great choice. Plant it once and then sit back and watch the hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and even hummingbird moths come swarming in!
Don’t forget to let a few of your flowers go to seed so that you can keep attracting even more birds during fall!
What type of Bee Balm do you have growing in your backyard?
Please comment below, and remember to mention where you live!
Thanks for reading.