Bee Balm: How To Plant, Grow, and Care for Monarda
We all want to encourage pollinators to populate our gardens. After all, without those pollinating insects, we don’t have flowers or produce! And so, to draw beneficial insects to our yards, we tend to use plants like bee balm.
But what is bee balm, exactly? It’s a part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and an awful lot of people grow bee balm… does that mean it’s a mint? Does bee balm do anything more than just look pretty?
Today, we’ll go over some of the Monarda species of plants, and examine the differences between these different types of bee balm. We’ll discuss:
- How to care for annual and perennial varieties
- How to propagate new ones
- Talk about the historical uses of bee balm plants
Listen to this post on the Epic Gardening Podcast
Bee Balm Overview
|Bee balm, eastern beebalm, Bradbury’s beebalm, lemon beebalm, etc.
|Monarda bradburiana, Monarda citriodora, Monarda clinopodioides, and others
|12-36” depending on species
|Full sun to afternoon part shade
|Moderate, but is drought-tolerant
|Average to rich
|Compost or all-purpose plant fertilizer (slow-release or liquid)
|Pests and Diseases
|Stalk borers, spider mites, thrips. Also is susceptible to powdery mildew and root rot in the right conditions.
All About Bee Balm
Bee Balm is just one of the many common names for all Mondarda species. All members of the mint family, bee balm wildflowers attract pollinators and people alike. All are native to southern Canada through the Eastern US. Some species hail as far south as Mexico.
If you’re looking to add color to your herb garden, plant bee balm towards the center or rear of your garden space, as they will be taller than most annual herbs, and try growing thyme, basil, parsley, or chives around it.
For a burst of added color against the purple or red bee balm, try growing daylilies for a bright yellow, or select a nicely contrasting blue by planting agapanthus.
And finally, for nice blends of similar-sized plants, growing black-eyed Susans or echinaceas nearby can make your blooms similar in height, but if you want a lower flower beneath these, try a dwarf phlox along the base to add a spark of brightness beneath the larger blossoms.
Bee Balm Varieties
There are many different varieties of the bee balm Monarda species, and about 50 commercial cultivars commonly available. But an awful lot of bee balm varieties are naturally-growing wildflowers in the United States. Let’s look at a short list of some of the types and the differences between them.
Monarda bradburiana, ‘Eastern beebalm’
This perennial variety of bee balm has a lower cushion of rich green foliage, with lightly-toothed edges along oval leaves. Rising above, the flower stems tinge towards purple, and culminate in a lavender to light purple flower. These bee balm flowers produce large amounts of nectar, which draws a variety of wildlife from bumblebees to hummingbirds. It’s native to the central and southeast United States.
Monarda citriodora, ‘Lemon beebalm’
An annual, lemon bee balm is often found as a wildflower in much of the United States and into Mexico, but is also widely cultivated. This monarda does not look anything like Bradbury’s, in that it has long spear-like or grassy leaves and a much more compact plant base. The stem rises from the center of the bee balm plant and has multiple purple or purplish-pink florets stacked atop it.
The lemon part of this bee balm’s name refers to the lemony scent that new leaves have when crushed, caused by naturally-forming citronellol, and it’s commonly used as an insect repellent in gardens because of that aroma. However, it should not be confused with the other plant commonly known as “lemon mint”, despite sharing the name.
Monarda clinopodioides, ‘Basil beebalm’
The annual known as basil bee balm is a native of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. This plant is a bit woody, with long slender leaves on the flower stalks mixed with slightly oblong leaves at the plant’s base. The flower stalk supports multiple florets of pale purple bee balm flowers stacked neatly in a conical form.
Monarda didyma, ‘Crimson beebalm’
This popular ornamental, often red bee balm plant is a perennial. Native to the eastern United States, it is widely naturalized throughout the rest of the US and in parts of Europe and Asia. Showy tubular flowers in inflorescences of about 30 around a central bract rest at the tip of a vibrant green stem, surrounded by lush green leaves. There are many different cultivars of this bee balm which produce colors of medium to dark red, white, purple and pink flowers.
But the term bergamot is misleading, as no monarda is a true “bergamot” of the type used to scent teas. However, if you want to prevent powdery mildew from ever entering your garden, this red bee balm is key. The species and all associated cultivars are powdery mildew-resistant.
Monarda fistulosa, ‘Wild bergamot’
A wild perennial, the wild bergamot bee balm produces showy lavender or pink blossoms throughout the summer months. Each flower cluster on its branch can produce between 20-50 tubular flowers, and rests over brilliant green herbaceous and fragrant foliage. There are multiple varieties of this bee balm plant, many of which have slightly different odors. In fact, Native American tribal people recognized at least four separate variations for their scents, each indicating different uses for the plant.
Monarda media, ‘Purple bergamot’
Typically found in swampier environments such as riverbeds, this perennial bee balm has lance-shaped leaves and square stalks. At the top of the stalk forms a large inflorescence in a reddish-purple hue, made up of many smaller tubular flowers around a seed head. While it is not a true bergamot any more than Monarda fistulosa or Mondarda didyma, it has a similar aroma to the bergamot orange used for scenting commercial teas. This frequently red bee balm is common throughout the eastern United States and into Canada.
Monarda punctata, ‘Spotted beebalm’
The spotted bee balm can be either an annual or a perennial depending on its environment. It seems to favor sandy soils with good drainage. The flower heads are stacks of flowers, each with its own bract, and have a yellow with purple spotted flower color and occasionally purple petal-tips. The fragrant foliage of this bee balm is slender-leaved and bright green in hue. Monarda punctata is a major draw for beneficial bugs, especially beneficial predatory wasps. It has a thyme-like aroma.
Bee Balm Care
Bee balm is easy to grow, as it’s a very forgiving plant. You’ll want to pick a location with good growing conditions: ample light, well-draining soil, and if you’re growing it to encourage beneficial insects or hummingbirds, you’ll want to place bee balms near your food plants. Let’s look a little closer at what the optimal conditions to grow bee balm are.
Light and Temperature
Bee balm is a full sun plant, so in much of the United States, you can plant it in full sun to promote blooming. In hotter areas of the south or southwestern US, a little partial shade in the afternoon will help the flowering season to last a bit longer and will protect the perennial varieties of bee balm from the scorching heat of the afternoon.
Some varieties, like Monarda citriodora will last through the intense heat of late summer. While bee balm is a spring and summer bloomer, bee balms themselves are hardy down to -20°F. It’s at this time in winter, the above-ground bee balm plants die back, but they self-seed to return again in spring.
Water and Humidity
Most varieties of bee balm are reasonably drought-tolerant, but they do much better with regular watering. Keeping the soil damp but not wet should be adequate. Be sure that the area you plant bee balm in does not get soggy during the winter months and stays well-draining so you do not drown your perennial varieties! An exception to this is Monarda media, which likes more moisture, but even then it does need room for the roots to breathe as well.
Moderate humidity in the native range of bee balm plants is perfect, but too much can create conditions where powdery mildew thrives. Sometimes dry conditions are suitable for established stands, too. It’s less likely that powdery mildew will develop in a dry environment.
Monardas don’t always like overly wet soil as this can create conditions where powdery mildew thrives, so it’s important that your soil is able to drain off any excess water. The wild forms of bee balm are not at all picky in terms of soil fertility, and are known to grow in anything from sandy soils to potting mix.
Commercial cultivars of bee balm like slightly richer soil, likely because of years of propagation in better quality soils. Plant bee balm in soil with a pH range between 6.0 and 6.7 for best growth, and I like to add some compost to the bed to give the soil extra nutrient value before planting.
There are two common fertilization techniques for bee balm. A nice layer of top-dressed compost in the spring followed by a couple inches of mulch will offer plenty of plant nutrition along with some weed prevention.
Alternately, you can use a general-purpose organic fertilizer, either a slow-release granular form dug into the soil or a liquid formula. Either of these options should keep bee balm well-fed. Be careful not to overfeed wild Monardas as they won’t perform as well with excess nutrition.
Repotting Bee Balm
Bee balm often forms a rather dense root ball in pots. When repotting bee balm, it is often a good idea to divide the plant to ensure that it doesn’t get too rootbound. Start out by loosening the soil around the roots, and then gently working a shovel beneath the root ball. Pry the bee balm plant upward carefully until you can free it from its pot.
To divide the bee balm plant, shake it gently and brush off as much loose soil as possible without harming the plant. Cut through the thicker individual roots with a pair of pruning shears, and then gently pry the two segments apart to maintain the smaller roots. You want to make certain that every division of the bee balm plant has plenty of root mass to regrow from.
When you have the bee balm plants divided down to the size you desire, inspect the roots, trimming off any which appear slimy or partially-rotten. Similarly, trim off any weak or broken stems from the plant. Work quickly so that the roots do not dry out, and immediately re-plant bee balm in new pots or garden beds once you’ve got your bee balms prepared.
While you can divide bee balm as mentioned above in the repotting segment, you can also grow bee balm from cuttings or from seeds.
If you’re propagating bee balm from cuttings, select new spring growth from the tips of the stems, cutting them at least six inches long and just below a set of leaves. Place your cut stems into a small pot which is filled with perlite, peat moss, vermiculite, or a blend of any of these options. Water them well and set them inside a plastic bag to help retain some moisture.
Once the bee balm stems have taken root, remove the plastic bag and repot your cuttings in potting soil and place in a sunny window or greenhouse until you are ready to replant elsewhere.
If you are growing bee balm from seed, first make sure your bee balm seed is not from a hybrid cultivar, as they often do not breed true. Plant your seeds in the very early spring when the soil is still cool and there is still a chance of light frost. When your bee balm seedling plants have formed at least two sets of true leaves, you can then thin them down to 18-24″ apart or transplant them to space them out as needed.
You can save seeds from your bee balm plants, although if it’s a hybrid, it likely will not breed true. Generally, the seeds are ready for harvest one to three weeks after the flowers have bloomed. Carefully place a paper bag at the base of your plant, and then gently bend a stalk over the bag and tap it.
If brown seeds fall into the bag, the seed is ready to be collected. Allow the seeds to dry on paper towels in a well-aerated environment for 3-4 days and then place them in an airtight sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to plant them.
Pruning Bee Balm
In the early spring, if you have established bee balm plants, it’s good to pinch back their growth when they reach about 12″ tall to promote a pattern where bee balm spreads. All you have to do is gently pinch off the top set of leaves from each stem. The plant will naturally spread wider before flowering.
If you’d like to encourage a longer floral display, stagger out that early pinching of your bee balm over a few weeks. Do about a third of your plants the first week, another third the second, and finally the remainder on the third week. Be sure to spread out the process over your whole garden so that you have even bloom distribution later.
If you have a large area of bee balm plants, you can opt to simply prune the entire patch at once with a pair of hand clippers or shears. Once it reaches the 12″ height, you can just evenly trim it to about half its height, which encourages lateral growth as well as more leaf mass. Doing this should discourage your plants from going lanky or weedy in appearance.
As your bee balm flowers start to fade, you should deadhead bee balm just above the next flower bud to encourage further flowering. Once a stem has finished flowering, trim it back down to the ground or pinch it off. This will encourage the plant to send up another blossoming stem.
In the fall or winter, you should prune bee balm after it has died back. Take it back down to just above the soil’s surface. This allows you to clean up the dead plant material, prevent powdery mildew, and perennial varieties will begin to show signs of new growth in the late winter or early spring again.
There are very few problems in growing bee balm. Realistically, it is an incredibly forgiving plant, and it will tolerate a wide variety of situations, soil conditions, sunlight conditions, and weather. However, bee balm is susceptible to a few pests and diseases.
For some varieties of bee balm, soil that isn’t moist enough can be a deal breaker. For more domestic Monarda’s provide enough moisture to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. In cooler regions, full sun is a must. In hotter ones, some partial shade will help prevent singeing of leaves.
Sometimes you may seed a stand of bee balm, have a lovely flush in the growing season, and then see they don’t emerge again. This could have to do with birds eating the seeds. If you know birds like to hang out in your yard, apply extra seed, and cover it lightly with leaves or a thin layer of sand or mulch. This will keep the birds out.
Stalk borers do exactly what their name implies, as the larvae tunnel into the stalk of the bee balm plant. If you see a small hole with a yellowish edge in the stem, cut the stalk at least an inch below the hole, and check inside the removed stalk to see if the larva is inside. If it is, destroy that stalk. If the plant begins to wilt before you have caught the stalk borer and removed it, it is likely going to die.
Spider mites cause yellowish spots on bee balm leaves by sucking out the plant juices. There will also be super-fine webbing on the plants themselves. To combat these, use insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils like neem oil to eliminate the spider mites.
Thrips do similar damage to what spider mites inflict, except they do not build webbing on the bee balm plant surfaces. Neem oil and spinosad can reduce the population significantly.
Bee balms are susceptible to powdery mildew. While powdery mildew is not always fatal to the plant, it blocks the plant’s ability to take in the sun’s rays and do photosynthesis, so it is best to treat it whenever possible. Allow for good air circulation around your bee balm plants to prevent powdery mildew, especially if you live in a more humid environment. If necessary, regular applications of neem oil can wipe out powdery mildew.
Aside from powdery mildew, during the colder months of the year, bee balm can be susceptible to root rot if the soil where it’s planted is not well draining. To avoid this, ensure the soil is very well draining beneath your plant, which will also promote good air circulation. Root rot is not something which can be treated, so be sure to avoid it!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is bee balm edible?
A: Yes. Above-ground portions of the plant are edible, and the leaves are used in cooking, although it may be bitter if used in a large quantity. It is used to season poultry or game fowl. The flower petals make a beautiful addition to salads.
Q: Can it be used medicinally?
A: Many Native American tribes and early settlers to the United States used bee balm medicinally for digestive ailments and to treat bee stings. The Monarda species contains naturally-forming thymol, which is an antiseptic used in commercial mouthwashes. In addition, the subspecies Monarda citriodora has naturally forming citronellol, allowing it to be used as an insect repellent by rubbing the bruised leaves onto one’s skin.
Q: Is it an invasive plant species?
A: If you don’t contain it… yes! Bee balm is a member of the mint family, and has all the same runner-like properties that mint has. Divide off the plant regularly to keep it manageable, keep the runners trimmed, and it won’t take over your garden.
Q: What companion plants grow well with bee balm?
A: If you’d like to lure hummingbirds or a beneficial bug to your yard, planting bee balm alongside Western columbine or silver sage will help! When mixed with Joe Pye weed, bee balm can be a surefire lure for butterflies, too.
Q: Does bee balm come back each year?
A: Monardas are hardy perennials, and will return annually.
Q: Does bee balm spread?
A: An established stand of bee balm spreads into areas around them if it isn’t controlled — assuming conditions are right for the plant. Use propagation and pruning methods mentioned above to keep it in check.
Q: What bugs does bee balm keep away?
A: Planting bee balm doesn’t actually keep away insects, but attracts pollinators and beneficial insects that can help you control pests. The oils in Monarda citriodora are a great mosquito-repellent when extracted from the plant through bruising or other extraction techniques.
Q: Is bee balm toxic to dogs?
A: It is not toxic to dogs! Therefore, it’s a great plant for a pollinator garden frequented by pups.