Monarda: how to grow & care for bee balm plants
Monarda plants are long blooming, bee-friendly perennials. Find out everything you need to know about bee balm plants, from choosing the right variety to where and how to plant and care for them.
Bee balm (Monarda) is well known for having vibrantly coloured, fragrant flowers that attract bees and many other insects. Let us introduce you to this delightfully long-flowering perennial. We have all the tips on how to plant and care for bee balm, as well as how to use it.
Monarda: flower, characteristics and origin
The Monarda plant belongs to the Lamiaceae family and originally comes from North America, where native Americans used this wild bergamot to make Oswego tea. Monarda is known by several other names, the most common of which is bee balm, followed by wild bergamot, bergamot flower, and horsemint, to name a few. Despite the name, it is not related to the true bergamot (Citrus bergamia), though the leaves do have a similar fruity, citrusy scent.
Perennial bee balm grows as a bush and is partly stoloniferous. It forms many unbranched, square stems with hairy, lanceolate leaves with serrated margins. Depending on the variety, bee balm’s flowering period begins in June and can last until October.
The bergamot’s flowers appear to be a single large flower with many petals, but they are actually a group of flowers clustered together in dense whorls. A collar of bracts surrounds these clusters of lipped flowers. Depending on the variety and species, bee balm plants can grow anywhere from 40 to 150cm tall, with blossom colours ranging from white to pink, salmon, violet, or red. The flowers’ long-lasting beauty attracts bees and other pollinators throughout the summer. Small seeds form after pollination.
The most beautiful species and varieties
The most common varieties of Monarda available are Monarda didyma x fistulosa hybrids. It is much harder to find the pure species, such as crimson bee balm (Monarda didyma), also known as scarlet monarda.
Here are some of the most beautiful Monarda species and varieties:
- Monarda ‘Beauty of Cobham’: this variety has contrasting flowers in pale pink with dark purple-red bracts. It originates from England and grows between 80 and 100cm tall.
- Monarda ‘Bee Happy’: is a compact variety only growing up to about 60cm tall. This hybrid is only a few years old, and delights bees and other insects with its magenta-coloured flowers and fragrant foliage.
- Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’: can grow up to 80-100cm tall and as the name suggests has scarlet flowers. This is an American cultivar from 1913 that grows less vigorously and thrives better than other varieties in drier soils.
- Monarda ‘Fireball’: is a Monarda didyma species that grows to about 40cm tall and is very compact. Its bright red flowers look particularly impressive in balcony boxes or as a group in a perennial bed.
- Monarda ‘Gewitterwolke’: has bright purple flowers with pink bracts. This bee balm variety blooms between July and August and can reach a height of 100cm.
- Monarda ‘Morgenröte’: has salmon red flowers and grows up to 100cm tall. This variety blooms between July and September.
- Monarda ‘Petite Delight’: is a dwarf variety of bee balm that only grows to 25-30cm tall. This species of Monarda didyma has pink to purple flowers and spreads via runners.
- Monarda ‘Pink Lace’: is another compact variety that will not grow much taller than 40cm and is therefore ideal for the balcony or terrace. Between July and September, it blooms profusely with pink flowers.
- Monarda ‘Prairie Night’: has violet-purple flowers that bloom between July and September. This runner forming perennial is wide and bushy and can grow up to 130cm tall.
- Monarda ‘Snow White’: this white bee balm flowers from July through to September and grows up to 100cm tall.
- Monarda ‘Sugar Lace’: grows 50-70cm tall with lots of pink flowers. This compact variety’s reddish-green leaves are particularly attractive.
- Monarda didyma: also known as scarlet or crimson bee balm, is used in folk medicine and as a tea plant.
- Monarda citriodora: this perennial, also known as lemon bee balm, thrives best in warmer temperatures, and is generally only cultivated as an annual summer flower and seasoning plant. Its aromatic lemon flavoured leaves are used in teas.
- Monarda ‘Blaustrumpf’: has deep purple flowers and grows vigorously. It reaches a height of 120cm and blooms between August and September.
Planting Monarda: location and procedure
Monarda plants are usually propagated vegetatively using division and cuttings and can typically be found as young perennials in gardening centres. It is also possible to propagate bee balm by seed. In the spring, from the end of February, sow the bee balm seeds in a seed tray, and keep them on a sunny windowsill. Alternatively, from mid-May onwards, sow them directly outdoors once the risk of late frost has passed.
Bee balm seeds are light germinators, so do not cover them with soil. At 15 to 20°C and with a good water supply, the seeds will germinate within one to two weeks. A low-nutrient growing medium, such as our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, supports germination and root formation. After about four to six weeks, prick the seedlings out and transfer them to nutrient-rich soil.
- Perfect for herbs as well as sowing, propagating & transplanting
- For aromatic herbs & healthy seedlings with strong roots
- Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition
Tip: As slugs tend to avoid these aromatic perennials, no protection is necessary.
Bee balm thrives in nutrient and humus rich soil that retains water well. They also prefer a sunny to semi-shady location. Young bergamot plants are susceptible to frost, so it is best to plant them in spring. When planting outside, starting in mid-May ensures that the risk of late frost has passed, and the plants can thrive.
Plant bee balm at 50cm intervals – make the gap larger when planting varieties that grow vigorously or are particularly bushy. They look stunning planted in small groups of three to five plants and pair well with speedwell (Veronica), coneflower (Rudbeckia), scabious (Scabiosa) and various grasses.
Whether planting bee balm in a pot or in the garden, we recommend using a high-quality potting soil, such as our Plantura Organic Flower Compost. Our sustainable, peat-free substrate has a high compost content, which helps to increase water retention and support soil life. When added to heavy or sandy soils the quality of the soil can be significantly improved.
- Perfect for all flowering plants in garden beds & pots
- For beautiful blossoms & healthy plant growth
- Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition
Tip: When growing bee balm in pots, start out with a 10 to 15 litre planter that has good drainage. Add 5 to 10cm of sand, gravel and expanded clay as a drainage layer to prevent waterlogging and root rot. Fill the pot with a high-quality, nutrient-rich potting soil and place your Monarda inside.
Bee balm care
Bee balm requires regular watering and pruning to thrive. The most important care measures are detailed below.
Pruning, fertilising and watering
Monarda need to be watered regularly, especially in the first year. Because they are drought-sensitive, they must be watered on a regular basis throughout the summer.
Fertilise once in spring with a dose of mature compost or granular fertiliser, to encourage new shoot development. The plants will feed on it all year, so no additional fertilisation is required. We recommend using a slow-release fertiliser, such as our sustainably produced and animal free Plantura Flower Food. This fertiliser is also suitable for use on bee balm plants kept in containers and those that are being repotted. The special composition of the fertiliser granulate keeps your plants healthy and ensures that they flower longer. Gently work the fertiliser into the upper layer of soil after application. Organisms within the soil will ensure that, over the course of the following weeks, the necessary nutrients are gradually released as the plants require them.
- Perfect for flowering plants in the garden & on the balcony
- For healthier plants with beautiful & long-lasting blossoms
- Long-lasting fertiliser that is free from animal products - child & pet friendly
It is safe to deadhead withered bee balm flowers and foliage throughout the flowering period. At the end of the growing season, cut it right back to about a hand’s width high. Every five years or so, divide the bee balms to thin them out. To do this, use a sharp spade to cut off a piece of the existing rootstock and replant in a new suitable location. The best time to do so is in the autumn or early spring.
Powdery mildew on bee balm: what to do?
If grown in the wrong spot, Monarda can develop powdery mildew. This mildew can form if the soil is too dry, or the plants have been planted too close together so that they are unable to dry out properly when wet or damp. You can counteract powdery mildew by moving the plants to a more suitable location. You can also try thinning out those plants that have grown too large. To divide your plant, follow the steps outlined above.
Is bee balm hardy?
If bee balm is pruned properly in the autumn, it is hardy to -30°C, so no special winter protection is required. A layer of foliage should suffice. When keeping bee balm in pots over winter, make sure they are frost-free or well protected with burlap, pine branches, or fleece.
The quickest and easiest way to propagate bee balm is through division. Divide the existing rootstock into smaller (though not too small!) sections. Once potted or transplanted into a new bed, they will soon form an independent plant.
It is possible to propagate some varieties from seeds. Some heirloom Monarda varieties, such as lemon and scarlet bee balm, thrive well when sown from seed. To collect your own seeds, instead of cutting them back at the end of the flowering season, simply leave the seed heads to mature. Once the seed heads have turned dry and brown, they are ready to be gathered – ideally in the early morning hours. Once you have collected the seed heads, take them indoors and let them continue to dry out at room temperature. Although this can take some time, the seeds usually fall out of the seed heads on their own. Pack the seeds separately and store them in a cool, dry, dark place.
Is bee balm poisonous or edible?
Bee balm is not poisonous to humans nor pets. Both the leaves and flowers are edible in fresh and dried form.
Bee balm uses
Bee balm leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dried. The bergamot monarda and the lemon and scarlet bee balm varieties are particularly aromatic. When dried it makes a wonderful tea with a bergamot-like aroma. Not only does it smell delicious, it also helps aid digestion.
There are many other bee-friendly perennials besides bee balm. Here are our top 10.