Updated Oct 14, 2022
Bee balm, a tried-and-true garden addition, can be grown as an ornamental flower, landscaping plant, and pollinator attractor. It’s even an edible herb, with a distinct flavor somewhere between mint and oregano. Sporting bushy foliage and bright, spiky flowers with summer blooms in shades of pink, red, purple, and white, bee balm is as easy to grow as it is on the eyes.
Bee balm is a member of the mint family, bearing the family’s distinctive square-shaped stem, opposite leaves, and whorled flowers—not to mention its propensity to spread quickly when left unchecked in the garden.
Bee balm has been known in its wild form for hundreds of years and has collected quite a few common names, including horsemint, bergamot, and Oswego tea. This indigenous North American plant was first given its formal name, Monarda, in 1571. Despite its long history, bee balm’s use as a true garden plant is much more recent.
Bee balm was commonly used by Native Americans as a medicinal herb to treat a wide range of ailments, including colds and bee stings—hence the popular common name—as an herb in cooking, and as a tea. Bee balm’s pleasing, spicy aroma is almost identical to that of bergamot, the citrus fruit that gives Earl Grey tea its signature flavor. Early European colonists also used bee balm when black tea supplies were scarce, a practice that took off after the Boston Tea Party.
Today, bee balm is still used medicinally by many herbalists—and enjoyed as a colorful and fragrant addition to flower gardens, herb gardens, and butterfly gardens.
LEFT Violet Queen, a mildew-resistant bee balm
RIGHT Wild Bergamot, a standard type of bee balm
There are many commercially available varieties of bee balm to choose from. Of course, varieties featuring a spectrum of blossom colors can be found within each category. The three most common are:
Bee balm can be successfully grown as a perennial in most temperate climates (USDA plant hardiness zones 3-9). Bee balm prefers full sun, but in hotter regions it may help to situate your plants in a location that receives a little afternoon shade. Bee balm does best in soil that is neutral or slightly acidic in terms of pH, and it requires moist, well-drained soil to stay healthy. Keep in mind that, like mint, bee balm spreads, so be thoughtful in selecting a location.
Bee balm can be direct-seeded into your garden, but most seed vendors recommend starting the plant indoors and transplanting the seedlings. You can also transplant bee balm plants divided from a friend’s garden or purchase seedlings from a local nursery.
Follow these steps to start your own bee balm seeds indoors and plant the seedlings in your garden:
Take the following steps to care for your bee balm plants and ensure that they thrive for years to come.
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