Bee Balm Plant: How To Grow And Care For Monarda [UPDATED 2018]

Monarda pronounced (Mon-nard-uh) more commonly known as “Bee Balm” is a herbaceous perennial plant native to North America.

These favorite garden perennials flower in late summer and commonly found in herb and flower gardens across the country.

bird attracting flowers of Bee Balm - Monad

Commonly known as the Bee Balm plant as its fragrant flowers attract honey bees, colorful butterflies, entertaining hummingbirds and other pollinating insects. The bee balm plant has a long history of medicinal uses by Eclectic American physicians, Native American tribes, and herbalist.

Where Did The Name Monarda Come From?

The genus Monarda is named after Nicolas Baptista Monardes a Spanish physician and botanist who in 1569 first described American flora. [source]

Monarda is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), with over 40 “accepted” varieties and species according to the Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. [source]


What Are The Common Names For Monarda?

Monarda is the genus of which several common names are used to refer to the 40 or so species and cultivars. Common names include:

  • Bee Balm
  • Oswego Tea – refers to the refreshing beverage made from the leaves.
  • Horsemint
  • Bergamot

The common name “bergamot” comes from the leaves fragrance reminiscent of (Citrus bergamia) the bergamot orange.

NOTE: The common garden species of Monarda once introduced to England soon became popular as cottage-garden and herb plants.


What Do Bee Balm Plants And Flowers Look Like?

Planted in groups Monarda forms bold, bushy clumps making them useful plants for background planting.

The crown-shaped flowers appear somewhat wispy with a spiral, spidery pattern near the end of the stalks. The blooms attract gardeners, butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Lilac bee balm monarda flower up close

The color of Monarda fistulosa – pronounced (fiss-tew-loh-suh) and known as the [wild bergamont] is lavender and Monarda didyma pronounced (did-im-ah) also known as the [scarlet bee balm] is red, but you’ll find new varieties and hybrids in an array of colors including:

  • Red
  • Pink
  • White
  • Purple
  • and many shades in between

The dark green leaves are pleasingly aromatic and somewhat coarse.

How Tall Does Bee Balm Grow?

Wild bergamot grows in dense clusters with striking flowers sitting atop three-foot high stems in mid to late summer.

However, plant size varies considerably. Today’s hybrids and cultivars feature dwarf selections of just 12” in height and other varieties reaching over 4 feet tall.


How To Grow Bee Balm

The hybrids of the two most popular species hold the most interest to the home gardener.

Both are useful in wild gardens, growing in semi-shade, and in attractive perennial borders.

They make colorful additions to herb gardens and can be naturalized along stream banks and around ponds.

Depending on the variety beebalm plants grow in USDA Hardiness zones 4 – 9. [source]

What Are The Bee Balm’s Soil And Light Requirements?

Bee Balm grows easily in most soils. However, it does well in a garden bed with rich garden soil or well-drained soil on the alkaline side, that retains moisture.

Select a location that receives full sun or partial shade in the afternoon to encourage the best flowering.

How Much Water Does Bee Balm Need?

Bee balm plants like an even supply of moisture throughout the growing season, though they will tolerate periods of drought. Watering with a soaker hose easily keeps Monarda soil moist.

During dry periods, water plants twice a week. Apply mulch to conserve moisture and reduce watering, soak the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches.

The roots of the Wild Bergamot – Monarda fistulosa – apparently handles dryer conditions better than Monarda didyma.

How Much Space Does Monarda Plant Need?

Bee Balm plants look most effective planted in mass.

Spacing plants 12” – 24” inches apart, encourages proper air circulation and minimizing powdery mildew disease.

Bee Balm Care – What And When To Fertilize

The Bee-blam plant does not require frequent feeding.

Fertilize the plant in early spring with a slow-release all-purpose garden fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or apply a liquid fertilizer every couple weeks. Take care, not to over fertilize.

Over-fertilizing can cause rampant, succulent growth increasing the severity of powdery mildew.

How To Grow Bee Balm In A Pot Or Container?

Some homeowners prefer to grow bee balm plants in pots.

They could be tight on the space required for the plants, or they may be concerned about their planting becoming invasive in their garden.

Monarda is from the mint family known for its rapid growth! Growing in containers allow better control over any invasive issues. They almost make attractive additions to the deck and patio.

Most bee balm cultivars reach a height of 2.5 to 4 feet tall. As an option plants consider purchasing some of the new dwarf varieties for container growing like:

  • Petite delight( rose pink flowers) which grows 15 inches tall
  • Petite Wonder (pink flowers) which reaches 10 inches

Many of the new varieties are also resistant to powdery mildew.

  • Using a well-draining potting soil fill a 7 – 10-gallon pot about one-third full. Water the soil and allow any excess water to drain.
  • Remove the plant from the nursery container and place it on top of the soil in the new pot.
  • The crown of the plant should be approximately 1 ½ inches below the rim of the pot. Add or remove soil to adjust the height of the plant.
  • Once the height is adjusted finish filling the pot with soil, lightly press the soil in place and water the plant thoroughly
  • Place the newly potted bee balm is an area with full sun all-day or full morning sun and light afternoon shade.
  • Make sure the location has good air circulation. Open decks or a patio are great places for the plant and for you to enjoy.
  • During the spring and summer months, water thoroughly when the top inch or so of soil becomes dry. Reduce watering during fall and winter months. Do not allow the soil to dry completely.
  • After the first frost or when the plant dies back naturally prune back stems to about 2” inches from the top of the soil. Dispose of the pruned material.

Dwarf Varieties

Most Bee Balm Monarda cultivars reach a height of 2.5 to 4 feet tall. However, dwarf varieties

Container Growing Best Practices

  • Monitor potted plants for powdery mildew
  • Avoid watering from overhead
  • Keep foliage dry
  • Remove infected leaves to prevent the potential spread of fungus mildew

PRO TIP: If concerned about potential invasiveness, sink pots in the ground and remove flowers before they go to seed.

How To Winterize Bee Balm

In mid-autumn prune back any stalks remaining to get plants ready for winter.

Also in mid-autumn add a 1” inch layer of mulch around the roots.

When spring arrives, and the ground warms up, remove the mulch to get plants ready for new spring growth.

bee balm plant


When Will My Bee Balm Flower And How Long Do They Bloom?

One of the nice assets of the Bee Balm is the long blooming season and easy culture.

Native from Quebec south to Georgia and Tennessee, the crimson-scarlet flowers of Monarda didyma display their showy colors from June to early fall.

The blooms of Monarda fistulosa the lilac to purple “Wild Bergamot” a native from Maine to Florida and Louisiana begin to appear in July and August. It is most impressive and effective when naturalized.


How To Keep Bee Balm Blooming

To increase lateral growth and more bee balm flowers, pinch back the stem tips in early spring when plants reach about three feet tall.

Using your fingers pinch out the first set of leaves on 1/3 of the stems. Staggering the pinching encourages a longer display of flowers.

Wait a week, and pinch another one-third and the last one-third of stems in the third week. Distributing the pinching evenly ensures that the bloom colors will appear uniformly.


How To Prune Bee Balm

A faster and easier alternative to pinching especially if you have lots of plants to pinch back is to cut the whole plant back.

Using a pair of hand clippers, cut back the entire plant by half when it reaches 12 inches tall.

If plants still grow tall and lanky cut off one-third of the growth.

Deadheading Monarda Plants

To keep plants flowering, remove dead flowers. Pinch the stem back just above the next flower bud.

When finished blooming, cut plants back to the ground. Use garden clippers to cut stems too rigid to pinch and encourage vigorous spring growth.


Pests and Disease Problems

Common insects attack Bee Balm such as black aphids and damaging red spider mites.

Control pests by spraying insecticidal soaps once a month. Increase the spraying frequency if infestation intensifies.

What To Do About Of Powdery Mildew On Bee Balm

Is your Monarda leaves covered with white powder?

The cause?

Powdery Mildew is the primary disease affecting Bee Balm. This fungus often shows up even under the best growing conditions.

Severe symptoms show up in areas where plants are overcrowded.

To curb the disease:

  • Use the recommended spacing of 12” – 24” inches between plants
  • Select a location where the plant receives lots of sunlight
  • Remove and destroy the disease-infested plants

Selecting mildew resistant varieties will also help. Some of the varieties include:

  • Gardenview Scarlet – scarlet-red flowers
  • Marshalls Delight – bright pink flowers
  • Violet Queen – violet-blue flowers
  • Colrain Red – purplish-red flowers
  • Raspberry Wine – wine-red flowers

Bee Balm Deer Resistant?

One massive “pest” in many gardens across North America is deer feeding on plants in the garden.

One question often asked – “Is Bee Balm Deer Resistant?”

The Monarda plant attracts hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies but also functions in the garden as a deer repellant.


How To Propagate Bee Balm From Seed or Division

Propagating Bee Balm From Seed

Before you can sow seed, you first need to acquire the seed to plant. You can purchase seed or collect the seed.

How To Collect Bee Balm Seeds

Expect Monarda seeds to mature one to four weeks after blooming.

  • When collecting seeds wait until the flowers fade and seedhead (flower) turns brown and is ready to harvest.
  • Test for maturity by placing a brown bag over the seedhead
  • Bend the seedhead over and shake the white to cream-colored, or light brown to dark brown seeds into the brown bag [source]
  • The seeds are mature and ready to harvest if they fall into the bag
  • Next, the cut flowerhead into a brown bag and allow the seedhead to dry even longer
  • After drying several more days shake to get more seed out of the flowerhead
  • Spread the collected seeds out on a paper towel to dry for an additional few days
  • Label and store dried seeds in the refrigerator in a sealed container like a ball jar.

Both Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Monarda didyma produce plenty of seed.

NOTE: Some of the newer cultivars produced may NOT produce seed.

How To Plant Bee Balm Seeds

  • Sow seeds directly in the flower garden after all the danger of frost
  • When starting indoors, sow seeds in pots 5 to 8 weeks before the last expected frost
  • Cover seeds lightly with an eighth inch of moist soil and give them plenty of space
  • When transplanting to the garden, dig a good size hole, apply general-purpose fertilizer and firm the soil around the plant.
  • Water thoroughly

Dividing Clumps Of Monarda

Although you can start Bee Balm from seeds, the easiest way to propagate is by the division of clumps.

Plants can spread quickly and need dividing every 3 or 4 years during the spring.

When new growth appears in spring, using a knife cut out the center hardwood section and divide into multiple clumps.

Throw out old center hardwood section and replant the outer shoots and roots 12” – 24” inches apart.


Uses For Monarda Plants In The Garden

A long blooming season makes bee balm an excellent choice for planting on sunny, showy perennial borders.

  • They make colorful additions when naturalized around ponds or included in herb gardens.
  • As the common name “bee balm” implies, bees love the tasty nectar the colorful flowers supply.
  • Other pollinators who love the nectar are hummingbirds and butterflies. It is a must in any butterfly garden.
  • The strong scent proves an effective mosquito repellent plant. Generally, its ability to control mosquito works best when leaves are crushed to release the fragrant essential oils.

Other Uses For Bee Balms

  • Dry leaves for use as a tea to soothe cold symptoms, sore throat, headache, and congestion.
  • Made into a tincture
  • Oswego tea or bee balm tea is used to treat stomach issues such as gas, vomiting, nausea, and reduce muscle spasm.
  • Dry leaves and flowers to use as an aromatic suitable for sachets and potpourri.
  • Monarda contains high concentrations of Thymol, a strong antiseptic, common in mouthwashes.

According to Cornell University, the “Red-flowered forms are reputed to make the most flavorable teas and be more resistant to deer damage.” [source]


Top Monarda Varieties

The Mt. Cuba Center spent 3 years in a trial which included 40 Monarda species and cultivars.

The characteristics of each cultivar were evaluated for foliage, habit, quality, disease resistance and floral display. [source]

Below are the Monarda varieties selected as the best performers for the mid-Atlantic region.

  • Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’
  • Monarda ‘Dark Ponticum’
  • Monarda ‘Violet Queen’
  • Monarda ‘AChall’ (Grand Marshall)
  • Monarda ‘Judith’s Fancy Fuchsia’
  • Monarda ‘Colrain Red’
  • Monarda ‘Raspberry Wine’
  • Monarda ‘Purple Rooster’
  • Monarda ‘On Parade’
  • Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’

Related Reading – How To Care For Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)


Harvest and Storage

  • Pick flowers as they appear in summer.
  • Cut whole stems to enjoy the flowers.
  • Pick flowers before they open for drying.

Monarda, Oswego Tea or Bee-Balm History As Described 65 Years Ago

It is always fun to read about plants from decades ago and WHAT we can learn. Below comes from a 1950 article (with minor edits) describing Bee Balm or Monarda.

Bee Balm (Monarda) is a very old plant in English gardens treasured as a valuable and striking feature for the herbaceous border and moist positions elsewhere. In the writer’s garden, the plant grows in light soil, in a border facing west, in company with Iris kaempferi, another moisture lover.

However, it is content with dryish conditions in our gardens. Monarda flowers from July to September.

It appears we owe this charming plant to an American, a Mr. J. Bartram of Philadelphia, who as far back as 1744, sent seeds to a friend in England where it flowered the following year.

Mr. Bartram found the plant growing at Oswego, hence one of its popular names, oswego tea. It is found wild by streams in eastern Canada and in the eastern states as far south as Georgia.

Another interesting feature of Monarda is the pleasant scent of its foliage which explains the other common name, Bee-Balm. The fine, rich red flowers, in clusters, are generally produced at the top of the stems which are about two ft. high.

As in all red flowers, discrimination is desirable in choosing its associates. In the writer’s opinion, it contrasts agreeably with the lovely blue-flowered plant, Ceratostigma willmottianum, which flowers from July until frost.

Monarda is easily propagated by division or by seeds which it freely produces. The fine form known as Cambridge Scarlet is a seedling raised years ago.