The enduring charms of bee balm

By Lynette L. Walther | Aug 09, 2019
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther "Leading Lady Lilac" is one of the several new varieties of bee balm.

My, how things change. Seems a bit hard to believe now, but it wasn’t that long ago folks created their gardens around plants that did not attract bees. Of course these days we’ve learned the importance of both honeybees and native bees, but also of a wide variety of pollinators not only for the health of our environment, but for that of our gardens as well. Today we seek out those flowering varieties that not only attract, but also provide for a host of pollinators.

And when it comes to bee-attracting plants — bee balm (Monarda) pulls them in like filings to a magnet. But even more than that, bee balm is a multitasker. This old-fashioned garden favorite not only provides nectar for pollinators (think bees, butterflies, hummingbirds), but also seed heads for song birds, it's safe for kids and pets, and the scent from its crushed leaves can even repel mosquitoes. Plus, it is one of the best herbs to dry for fragrant herbal teas, lending its characteristic bergamot flavor and aroma. The colorful blooms can also be dried for everlasting bouquets or used in potpourri.

Monarda is native to woodland and prairie regions of North America, and is a member of the large family of mints. Its square stems testify to this. Long used by indigenous peoples and settlers for both culinary and medicinal purposes (both the flowers and foliage are used), its popularity continues for both those purposes, as well as its aesthetic and environmental benefits. Monarda includes 15 species of annuals and clump-forming rhizomatous perennials.

Grow bee balm in Zones 3 to 9, in full sun at northern reaches of its range to partial shade at the southern zones. Plant in fertile, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic to neutral. Bee balm thrives on plenty of moisture, but requires good drainage. Plants can range from nearly four feet tall to newer compact varieties that are 10 inches tall and up. Situate plants one and a half to two feet apart, depending on variety. Bee balm can be susceptible to powdery mildew and fungal issues, so provide plenty of air circulation for plants.

To start bee balm from seed: Indoors, sow seeds in cell packs or flats, press into soil but do not cover with soil. Light helps bee balm seeds to germinate. Kept flats at 60 to 70 degrees, and seedlings should emerge in 14 to 21 days. Transplant bee balm plants into small pots or sixpacks to allow the plants to develop root systems and when the soil has warmed, plant in the garden or containers.

Flower heads appear on top of long square stems that are filled with tubular petals in terminal whorls and colored bracts. Some varieties have blooms spaced out along the length of the stems. Bee balm blooms throughout the summer and flowers come in shades of red, pink, lavender, white, or purple. Foliage is fragrant, green to blue-green in color.

The blooms not only attract, but also support wildlife, providing for pollinators like butterflies, bees, moths and even hummingbirds. Leave the seed heads for the fall and winter for songbirds to feed on. The aromatic foliage of bee balm makes it a deer-resistant plant.

To dry bee balm for everlasting bouquets or herbal tea, cut stems early in the day and fasten with twine in bunches of one or two dozen blooms. Hang upside down in a dry location out of the sunlight until flowers and foliage are completely dry. Individual blooms can be dried for teas by spacing them in a loose layer on a screen or large flat basket to dry. New varieties offer a rainbow of colors and bigger, fluffier blooms.

Bee balm is an old-fashioned favorite that never went out of style nor out of our gardens. Easy to grow and fun to use, bee balm’s popularity continues to amaze and reward those who include it in their sunny borders and cottage gardens. Some new cultivars to look for include: "Pardon My Cerise" (big, bold red blooms), "Pardon My Lavender" (big puffs of lavender), "Pardon My Pink" (fluffy pink blooms), "Pardon My Purple" (brilliant purple blooms), "Leading Lady Lilac" (frilly masses of lavender flowers), "Leading Lady Orchid" (sparkling orchid blooms) and "Leading Lady Plum" (big plum-colored blooms).

Hummingbirds go wild for bee balm, zeroing in the brilliant blooms. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
An assortment of blossoms are dried for herb tea. Pictured here are bee blam, anise hyssop, elecampine and calendula. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
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