Bee balm, a tried-and-true garden addition, can be grown as an ornamental flower, landscaping plant, and pollinator attractor. It’s even an edible herb, with a distinct flavor somewhere between mint and oregano. Sporting bushy foliage and bright, spiky flowers with summer blooms in shades of pink, red, purple, and white, bee balm is as easy to grow as it is on the eyes.
The history of bee balm
Bee balm is a member of the mint family, bearing the family’s distinctive square-shaped stem, opposite leaves, and whorled flowers—not to mention its propensity to spread quickly when left unchecked in the garden.
Bee balm has been known in its wild form for hundreds of years and has collected quite a few common names, including horsemint, bergamot, and Oswego tea. This indigenous North American plant was first given its formal name, Monarda, in 1571. Despite its long history, bee balm’s use as a true garden plant is much more recent.
Bee balm was commonly used by Native Americans as a medicinal herb to treat a wide range of ailments, including colds and bee stings—hence the popular common name—as an herb in cooking, and as a tea. Bee balm’s pleasing, spicy aroma is almost identical to that of bergamot, the citrus fruit that gives Earl Grey tea its signature flavor. Early European colonists also used bee balm when black tea supplies were scarce, a practice that took off after the Boston Tea Party.
Today, bee balm is still used medicinally by many herbalists—and enjoyed as a colorful and fragrant addition to flower gardens, herb gardens, and butterfly gardens.
LEFT Violet Queen, a mildew-resistant bee balm
RIGHT Wild Bergamot, a standard type of bee balm
Types of bee balm
There are many commercially available varieties of bee balm to choose from. Of course, varieties featuring a spectrum of blossom colors can be found within each category. The three most common are:
- Standard—These bee balm plants can grow up to five feet tall, making them the perfect choice for those areas of your garden that would benefit from fuller foliage and a bit of height. Standard varieties include Cambridge Scarlet, Blue Stocking, Panorama Mix, and Wild Bergamot.
- Dwarfed—Bred for their compact profile, averaging 10–24 inches tall when fully mature, Petite Delight, Grand Marshall, and Fireball are excellent choices for container gardens.
- Mildew-resistant—Perhaps the one downside to bee balm is its susceptibility to powdery mildew, especially when grown in warm, humid climates. However, it is possible to select mildew-resistant varieties, such as Marshall’s Delight, Violet Queen, Jacob Cline, Purple Rooster, and Gardenview Scarlet. These are particularly good options for gardeners living in the south.
Where to plant bee balm
Bee balm can be successfully grown as a perennial in most temperate climates (USDA plant hardiness zones 3-9). Bee balm prefers full sun, but in hotter regions it may help to situate your plants in a location that receives a little afternoon shade. Bee balm does best in soil that is neutral or slightly acidic in terms of pH, and it requires moist, well-drained soil to stay healthy. Keep in mind that, like mint, bee balm spreads, so be thoughtful in selecting a location.
How to plant bee balm
Bee balm can be direct-seeded into your garden, but most seed vendors recommend starting the plant indoors and transplanting the seedlings. You can also transplant bee balm plants divided from a friend’s garden or purchase seedlings from a local nursery.
Follow these steps to start your own bee balm seeds indoors and plant the seedlings in your garden:
- Beginning 6–8 weeks before your local frost-free date, sow bee balm seeds in small pots or seed trays, pressing them gently into the potting soil. Bee balm requires some light to germinate, so the seeds should be covered just barely or not at all. Place the seeded pots or trays in a warm and sunny indoor spot, making sure to keep the potting soil evenly moist, until the seeds germinate.
- Once the seeds have germinated, continue watering the plants regularly until your local frost-free date has passed.
- “Harden off” your bee balm seedlings over the course of a few days by taking them outdoors for a few hours each day (a location with dappled sunlight is best) and then returning them indoors. This gives the plants time to adequately acclimate to outdoor temperatures before their big move to the garden.
- Choose a location in your yard or garden that gets either full sun or—if you live in a hotter climate—full morning sun with afternoon shade. The soil should be fertile, neutral or slightly acidic, and well-drained.
- Using a spade, dig a hole that is large enough to accommodate the seedling’s root ball and some or all of the potting soil.
- Place the bee balm seedling in the hole and refill the hole with soil, gently tamping down the soil around the base of the plant.
- Water thoroughly.
- Space bee balm plants 12–24 inches apart (be sure to check your chosen varieties for specific spacing requirements).
Bee balm care
Take the following steps to care for your bee balm plants and ensure that they thrive for years to come.
- During the spring and summer, thoroughly water your bee balm plants once a week unless you get ample rain (an inch or more per week).
- Clip off dead flowers to encourage a second round of blooms later in the season.
- Cut back your bee balm plants to just a few inches in the fall.
- Divide the plants every three years in the fall to maintain hardiness and reduce the spread of powdery mildew.
- Remove dead foliage to reduce the spread of disease.
- Top-dress with compost or fertilizer once a year.