Monarda, or bee balm as we call it, is a member of the mint family, and a popular plant for attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. These growing tips will help beginner gardeners establish these well-loved plants in a cottage-style garden. Bee balm does tend to grow freely, so it may need some taming after a few years, although it tends not be truly invasive like other members of the mint family.
For more, see all my plant suggestions for a cottage-style garden, and have a look around my garden here.
Growing Bee Balm (Monarda)
My practical reason for growing bee balm is probably the very reason why some don’t like it: it’s a reliable, lovely, tall plant that hummingbirds love and requires little or no maintenance.
Because it spreads by “runners” which are underground stems or stolons, one plant can become many in just a year or two. But, because the roots are shallow (just a few inches deep) it is much easier to control than other members of the mint family so I welcome it in my garden.
As a young gardener, I fell in love with the purple varieties. Over time I have noticed they are prone to powdery mildew and do not have the tenacity of the red ones. Today I have some purples, lots of reds, and bergamot (light purple blooms).
But, for now, I keep what I have because they are so popular with the pollinators and grow easily in my sandy soil.
- Bee Balm Plant Facts & Growing Tips
- Frequently-Asked Questions
Bee Balm Plant Facts & Growing Tips
Bee Balm | Genus: Monarda
Bee Balm Growing Tips
• Hardiness Zones 2 to 9
• Sun to part sun – 4 hours or more total direct sun per day
• Soil: does not like to dry out
• Member of mint family
• Spreads by runners (underground stems)
• Can be aggressive
• Native to North America: there are also various cultivars.
Shop Online: Buy bee balm seeds at Botanical Interests (US shipping)
|Species||Approximately 50 cultivars|
|Common name(s)||Bee balm, horsemint, oswego, bergamot|
|Type||Annual and perennial varieties|
|USDA Zones||2 to 9|
|Height||Up to 5 feet tall (1.5m), some shorter varieties max out at 1-foot tall|
|Spacing||Not an issue: crowding is natural because they spread by runners (roots)|
|Root depth||Shallow: bulk of roots are just 2 to 3 inches deep with some very fine roots reaching a few inches deeper. Total 6-inches.|
|Light||Sun to part sun|
|Soil||Moist, well-drained soil; does not like to dry out|
|Flower times||Summer | can deadhead or cutback after flowering|
|Colours||Red, purple, pink, lavender, white, mahogany|
|Attracts||Hummingbirds and butterflies|
|Propagation||Divide plants or sow seeds. Plant roots will also spread naturally.|
|Seed germination||Need light to germinate: sow 1/8-inch deep.|
|Seed starting soil temperature||60-70°F (16-21°C)|
|Pinching||Not required to generate flowers|
|Pruning / Cutting back||Cut back after flowering unless saving seeds or feeding birds|
|Cut flowers / Vase Life||Pick when flower whorls start to show color at end of day. Lasts 7 to 10 days in vase if preservative is used.|
|Problems||Spreads by underground by runners: may be aggressive in some areas.|
Prone to powdery mildew (Erysiphe cichoracearum) or leaf spot.
|Trivia | Uses||Crushed leaves produce a spicy, fragrant oil.|
Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma historically used for medicinal purposes as antiseptic skin poultices.
Wait! Before You Plant…
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Frequently Asked Questions
Bee balm seeds are dark in color, oval in shape, and tiny—just a millimeter or two long!
Collect bee balm seeds when the flowerheads are brown and dry, approximately 1 to 3 weeks after flowering.
Because of their size, it’s best to place the dry flowerhead in a paper bag and shake it to release the seeds.
Saved seeds should remain viable for two years in optimum storage conditions.
Unlike many other seeds, bee balm seeds need light to germinate so we sow them at a shallow depth of 1/8-inch or less.
Yes, bee balm can be invasive (if non-native) or aggressive (if native) depending on where it is growing. As a member of the mint family, bee balm (Monarda) spreads by runners (underground stems) and seed. Growing natively, it is both beneficial to wildlife yet can spread aggressively.
In my experience (southwestern Ontario, Canada), it is not, however, truly invasive like some mints where the roots are nearly impossible to remove. Bee balm roots tend to be shallower and easy to pull. If it was like mint, I would only grow it containers.
I let it spread in my garden and pull some out every few years to leave room for other plants.
It is always good to check with your local university extension office or conservation group to research any plants you want to grow and be sure you are making environmentally-beneficial choices for your region.
Yes, you can grow bee balm from seed. If you want to try a native species, look for it sold under the name Bergamot. I start mine from seed indoors and transplant it into the garden in late spring.
Yes, you can grow bee balm in containers. In my experience, you can grow just about anything in a container if you can provide the required growing conditions (sun, water, nutrients, good potting mix, and room for roots to grow).
Look for dwarf varieties of Monarda if you want something more compact for growing in pots.
The catch is that, depending on your climate, you may need to overwinter them to prevent the soil (and therefore, roots) from freezing.
Hummingbirds are attracted to bee balm in general and seem to prefer red bee balm more than other colors if there are choices present.
I have pink, purple, and red bee balm. The hummers spend most of their time with the red flowers, though they do take nectar from the others as well.
Bee balm does not require any pruning. Bee balm is a herbaceous perennial and at the end of the growing season the flowers and stems die back. Leave them for the winter to provide habitat for invertebrates—all those essential creatures that bring life to the garden and need a safe place to spend the winter. Late spring cut the old growth down to 6-inches. New growth will emerge from the soil.
Yes, sometimes bee balm flowers will change color often because they are unstable hybrids.
There are lots of Monarda hybrids and hybrids by nature have unpredictable reproduction, often displaying traits from their genetic heritage. So don’t be surprised if a light pink or purple one is red next year.
Bee balm can also cross-pollinate so yours may be getting pollinated by some neighboring bee balm flowers in different colors.
If your experience is like mine, one color will become dominant over the years. In my case, I love the deep purple ones but I have ended up with a garden of red flowers.
I suspect the key is to love whatever shows up.
Optimum Seed Storage
The lower the temperature and moisture levels, the longer most seeds stay viable.
Best temperature | 32-41°F (0-5°C)
Most fridges are in this range.
Also, room temperature (70°F/21°C or lower) is fine for short-term storage (1 year).
Store dry seeds and keep dry | Room air humidity below 50% | Keep away from light.
If moisture is an issue, use silica gel pack in containers.
Want Pollinators in Your Garden?
- Choose plants including trees and shrubs used by local wildlife for food, nectar, or habitat. Options will be different in each growing region.
- Avoid use of any products including pesticides that are toxic to pollinators.
- Keep it natural: don’t tidy up too much. Dead and decaying things nourish living things.
Happy gardening! And be sure to sign up for the free newsletter.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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