How to Grow Bee Balm, the Pollinator Plant Your Garden Is Missing
To throw a buzzy pollinator party in your yard, you need a fabulous host. Look no further than the native perennial Monarda (otherwise known as bee balm). George Coombs, director of horticulture at Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden in Hockessin, Delaware, offers a primer.
Like Lady Gaga in a headline-grabbing hat, Monarda knows how to make an entrance. By July, when most other blooms are slumping in the heat, it's primed to perform. "But the plant is more than just pretty," says George Coombs, director of horticulture at Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden in Hockessin, Delaware, who recently oversaw a three-year trial of 40 different varieties. "There's great ecological value to it." It grows naturally in most regions of the U.S., flourishes with little fuss, and attracts essential yet declining species of hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps (which come for the blossoms) and songbirds (which snack on its seeds). While it can be susceptible to powdery mildew, which causes its fragrant leaves to drop, the disease won't harm the plant. "Monarda is forgiving," says Coombs. "It offers a lot of bang for the buck."
As for how to grow these beauties? First, set the stage. Mix in compost when planting, and add a thin top layer of mulch every spring (it will enrich the soil as it breaks down). Water about once a week until established, then let nature take the lead. If you have a long dry spell, revive the plant with a drink of water. Then, give it space: A member of the mint family whose leaves were once used to soothe bee stings, bee balm likes to spread out. But don't worry; just place it in a spot where it can expand freely, like a large garden bed or meadow you want to fill quickly. It proliferates by sending out shallow underground rhizomes, so it's easy to tame, says Coombs. Dig up the top inch or two of roots with a shovel and share them with friends.
Pair it with equally enthusiastic growers—like grasses, asters, and coneflowers (Echinacea)—that are similar in height, so it doesn't get overshadowed. Or plant one in a container to keep it confined. You won't have to worry about bee balm when the weather turns, either. Adaptable Monarda is a stellar candidate for rain gardens, which are designed to prevent runoff by soaking up excess water. (They easily handle a lot of moisture.) If your spot fluctuates between wet and dry conditions, opt for M. fistulosa and its cultivars, recommends Coombs. For areas that are more consistently wet, choose varieties of red-bloomed M. didyma. Below, discover some of our favorite varieties; they just might inspire you to plant Monarda in your own garden.
M. 'Violet Queen'
Butterflies flock to this prolific four-foot-tall cultivar, which thrives in full-to-part-sun. It's resistant to powdery mildew, as are similarly-hued 'Purple Rooster' and 'Claire Grace.'
M. 'Gardenview Scarlet'
Large-flowered red cultivars like this one ('Jacob Cline' is another) enjoy moist, rich soil and partial sun. They attract hummingbirds, which sip nectar from their large, tubular blooms.
This annual species (you'll need to reseed it every year, in fall or spring) has dense tiers of vibrant purple bracts and lemony-scented foliage.