The Plant of the Month for August is bee balm (Monarda spp.). I love this plant because it’s so pretty and fragrant, bees love it, mosquitoes hate it, and it makes a lovely herbal tea. With all of these great bee balm uses, I just had to plant some in my backyard, and maybe after reading about it, you’ll want to grow bee balm too! I started my bee balm plants indoors in early spring from seed, but you can easily start with nursery plant starts as well.
As its name implies, the bee balm plant plays a crucial role in supporting pollinators–bees, of course, but also butterflies, hummingbirds, and other native species. But bee balm does a lot more than support pollinators.
Read on to discover bee balm’s many other uses in the garden, kitchen, and medicine cabinet. We’ll also cover bee balm growing tips, varieties, and a few cautions to be aware of when growing bee balm.
Bee Balm Basics
Understanding Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
Bee balm, scientifically known as Monarda spp., is a delightful perennial herb that holds a special place in the world of gardening. Also referred to as wild bergamot, horsemint, and Oswego tea, Bee balm is native to North America and has a long history of traditional uses.
This herbaceous plant is characterized by its square stems and aromatic leaves, which release a lovely scent when gently brushed. Its tubular flowers are arranged in dense clusters, creating a visually striking display in various hues.
In its natural habitat, bee balm can be found in meadows, woodlands, and along riverbanks, making it well-adapted to different growing conditions.
Bee balm comes in several different species and cultivars, each with its unique attributes and features. From the vibrant scarlet hues of Monarda didyma to the soft pink petals of Monarda fistulosa, there’s a bee balm variety to suit every gardener’s preferences and garden design.
In the following sections, we’ll explore the various functions and uses of bee balm in greater detail.
Bee Balm Ecological Functions
The Ecological Importance of Bee Balm
Bee balm (Monarda spp.) plays a vital role in the ecological balance of your garden, making it a valuable addition to a permaculture landscape. Its significance extends far beyond its eye-catching appearance, as it creates a hub of activity for a diverse range of pollinators.
Pollinator Magnet: Bee balm’s tubular flowers are a beacon for pollinators. Bees, including honeybees and native species, are particularly drawn to its abundant nectar supply. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and other beneficial insects also join in, sampling the nectar and spreading pollen as they visit flower after flower.
Supporting Native Pollinators: By cultivating bee balm in your garden, you contribute to the conservation of native pollinators that might be struggling to find food sources in urban environments. Providing these essential creatures with nourishment sustains their populations and fosters a healthier ecosystem.
Biodiversity Booster: The presence of bee balm encourages a diverse community of organisms in your garden. A wide array of pollinators, insects, and birds flock to this flowering herb, creating a harmonious balance that enriches the overall health and resilience of your garden.
Aromatic Pest Confuser: Bee balm’s aromatic foliage confuses insect pests, helping to protect neighboring plants from potential insect damage.
Soil Health: Beyond its above-ground benefits, bee balm contributes to soil health as well. Its root system improves soil structure and aids in nutrient retention, promoting healthier growth for neighboring plants.
Bee Balm Uses
Versatility in Bee Balm: From Medicinal to Culinary
Beyond its ecological significance, bee balm (Monarda spp.) offers a wide range of practical uses that make it a cherished addition to any garden. From traditional medicinal applications to culinary delights, this versatile herb has much to offer.
As usual, the information presented here is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional before using any herbs medicinally.
Furthermore, realize that consuming wild or garden-grown plants should be done with caution, with 100% positive identity, and introducing new foods comes with the risk of allergic reaction. You can read my site disclaimer for more information.
Culinary Uses for Bee Balm
Herbal Tea (Oswego tea): Bee balm leaves and flowers (Typically the species M. didyma) are traditionally used to prepare Oswego tea, a beverage among the Oswego Tribe of Native Americans. Oswego tea was embraced by American colonists as an alternative to British tea during their boycott.
Flavorful Garnish: Bee balm flowers make an appealing garnish for salads, fruit platters, beverages, or desserts. They add a pop of color and a touch of citrusy flavor to culinary creations.
Herbal Infused Oil: Infuse bee balm leaves in oil to create a fragrant and flavorful culinary oil. Drizzle it over salads, vegetables, or use it in marinades for an extra burst of taste.
Medicinal Uses for Bee Balm
Soothing Herbal Tea: Bee balm makes a soothing herbal tea (see culinary uses above), that has been used to ease gas pains, premenstrual symptoms, and soar throats.
Aromatic Steam Inhalation: Inhaling the steam from a hot bowl of bee balm tea can provide relief for respiratory issues, such as congestion or a mild cough.
Topical Compress: A poultice made from crushed bee balm leaves can be applied as a compress to alleviate minor wounds, burns, and sunburns, and to ward off infection.
Bee Balm in Aromatherapy
Fragrant Potpourri: Dried bee balm flowers and leaves make a wonderful addition to potpourri mixtures, releasing a pleasant and uplifting scent when displayed in your home.
Aromatherapy: The essential oils extracted from bee balm can be used in aromatherapy to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
Other Bee Balm Uses
Mosquito Repellant: Bee balm leaves have a fresh, citronella-like scent that repels pesky insects including mosquitos. Growing the plant near outdoor sitting areas may have some repelling power, but the effect is intensified when the leaves are crushed.
Cut Flowers: Bee balm’s vibrant and eye-catching flowers make it an excellent choice for fresh floral arrangements. Bring the beauty of the garden indoors with this colorful addition.
Growing Bee Balm
Cultivating Bee Balm in Your Garden
Growing bee balm in your garden is rewarding and straightforward, provided you meet its preferred growing conditions. With a little care and attention, you can enjoy the beauty of this enchanting herb while contributing to a thriving ecosystem in your permaculture landscape.
Choosing the Right Location
Sunlight: Bee balm thrives in full sun or partial shade. At least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day is enough for optimal growth and flowering.
Soil: Well-draining soil is important since bee balm prefers consistently moist soil that is not waterlogged.
pH Levels: Bee balm grows best in slightly acidic to neutral soil, with a pH range between 6.0 and 7.0.
Planting Bee Balm
Timing: Plant bee balm in the early spring after the last frost, or in the fall to give it time to establish before winter.
Spacing: Allow enough space between plants, as bee balm tends to spread through rhizomes. Plant them approximately 1 to 2 feet apart to provide enough room for growth.
Planting Depth: Set the root ball at the same depth as it was in its nursery pot. Firmly tamp down the soil around the plant to remove air pockets.
Watering and Maintenance of Bee Balm
Watering: Water bee balm regularly, especially during hot and dry periods. Keep the soil consistently moist but do not let it get waterlogged to prevent root rot.
Mulching: Applying a layer of organic mulch around the base of the plant helps retain moisture and suppresses weed growth.
Deadheading: (Optional) Regularly remove spent flowers to encourage new blooms and prevent self-seeding.
Propagating Bee Balm
Division: Over time, bee balm may become crowded. To propagate, divide the plant in early spring or fall by carefully separating its rhizomes and replanting them in new locations.
Growing Bee Balm from Seed: Bee balm can be propagated from seeds. Collect the seeds after the flowers have dried, or purchase bee balm seeds from a reputable nursery. Sow bee balm seeds directly in the garden or start them indoors before transplanting.
Managing Bee Balm Growth
Containment: As bee balm has a tendency to spread, you may want to consider containment measures, such as planting it in pots or using barriers to restrict its growth.
Pruning: In late fall or early spring, prune bee balm to the ground to encourage vigorous growth and maintain a more compact shape.
Bee Balm Varieties
Exploring the Diversity of Bee Balm
Bee balm (Monarda spp.) offers a fascinating array of varieties, each with its unique characteristics and visual appeal. From rich, vibrant colors to varying heights and growth habits, you can select the perfect bee balm variety to suit your garden’s style and needs. Let’s delve into some popular bee balm cultivars and discover their individual charm. In the section below, headings link to Amazon affiliate links for each bee balm variety.
One of the most striking varieties, Monarda didyma, showcases vibrant scarlet-red flowers that are magnets for hummingbirds and butterflies. Its impressive height, reaching up to 3 to 4 feet, makes it a standout focal point in the garden.
This native North American species boasts lovely pink to lavender flowers atop slender stems. Wild Bergamot’s airy and delicate appearance adds a touch of elegance to any garden landscape.
True to its name, Lemon bee balm offers a delightful lemony fragrance when its leaves are brushed. Its cheerful lavender to pale pink flowers attract bees and butterflies and create a refreshing ambiance in the garden.
This cultivar showcases brilliant red flowers and exhibits excellent resistance to powdery mildew, a common concern with some bee balm varieties. ‘Jacob Cline’ remains a popular choice for its disease resistance and stunning floral display.
These compact bee balm hybrids, such as ‘Pardon My Purple’ and ‘Pardon My Pink,’ are perfect for smaller spaces and containers. Despite their diminutive size, they produce an abundance of colorful flowers, making them ideal for urban and small-scale gardens.
This variety offers rich, raspberry-red flowers that add depth and allure to your garden’s color palette. Its robust growth and excellent resistance to mildew make it a reliable choice for any landscape.
With its striking violet-blue flowers, ‘Blue Moon’ stands out as an unusual and captivating addition to any garden. This cultivar also boasts an extended blooming period, providing continuous enjoyment throughout the season.
Spotted Bee Balm stands out with its dotted or striped bracts encircling pale, tubular flowers. This unique feature sets it apart among Bee Balm varieties, offering a distinctive choice for garden landscapes.
Remember to select bee balm varieties that are well-suited to your climate and growing conditions. Whether you prefer the classic reds, calming pinks, or distinctive blues, exploring the diverse world of bee balm cultivars offers an opportunity to create a visually dynamic garden landscape.
Bee Balm Cautions
While bee balm is a delightful and beneficial addition to your garden, there are some considerations to keep in mind to ensure its successful growth and harmonious integration with your garden ecosystem.
Bee balm has a tendency to spread rapidly through rhizomes. It can quickly colonize a large area if left unchecked, potentially crowding out other plants. To manage its growth, consider planting bee balm in containers or using barriers to restrict its spread.
Potential Powdery Mildew
Some bee balm varieties are susceptible to powdery mildew, a fungal disease that appears as a white powdery coating on the leaves. To minimize this issue, select mildew-resistant cultivars or provide adequate air circulation by spacing plants properly.
Bee balm readily self-seeds, leading to new plants popping up in unexpected places. If you prefer to control its spread, deadhead the spent flowers promptly to prevent self-seeding.
Considered Invasive in Some Regions
In some areas, certain bee balm species have become invasive and threaten native plant populations. Before introducing bee balm to your garden, research whether it is considered invasive in your region and, if so, consider native alternatives. The USDA National Invasive Species Information Center is a good place to start.
While bee balm is generally safe, some individuals may experience skin irritation or allergies when handling the plant. It’s advisable to wear gloves when working with bee balm, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Embrace Bee Balm: A Garden Gem with Ecological Grace
As we wrap up our exploration of bee balm, let’s celebrate its beauty and ecological importance. From its striking clusters of tubular flowers to its role as a pollinator magnet, and culinary and medicinal uses, bee balm is a valuable asset in many a garden.
So, welcome bee balm into your garden. Choose from its diverse varieties that suit your garden’s needs. As it thrives, you’ll see pollinators and wildlife enhancing your garden’s balance and vibrancy.
If bee balm seems like a good fit for your garden, then pick up some seeds or seedlings today. Plant from spring to fall. Bee balm seeds can be sown from early spring up until 8 weeks before the first frost or started earlier indoors for spring planting. Happy growing!