Bee balm is an old-fashioned garden favorite that, like so many others, has undergone a makeover in recent years.
Fragrant foliage has a fresh, spicy citrus scent that inspired alternate common names Oswego tea and Bergamot. Colonists learned from the Oswego Indians that this native herb makes a flavorful tea, with taste similar to that imparted by the exotic citrus bergamia used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
Blossoms are striking clusters of tubular flowers, nectar-rich and a favorite of both butterflies and hummingbirds. Our local wildflower species is Monarda fistulosa, which graces open meadows and roadsides with lavender-pink flowers in July and continuing sporadically into September. Plants are disease and drought resistant, tolerant of black walnuts, seldom bothered by deer or rabbits, and will grow well in most soil types, from clay to rocky sand. Reaches three feet tall and likes full sun to partial shade.
Diversity in flower colors comes from Monarda didyma. This species is also native to Michigan according to the USDA, but I’ve never seen it in the wild. Its natural flower color is vibrant red, and height varies from two to four feet. Plants are less drought-tolerant, favoring waterside locations and doing very well in sites that tend to stay wet in the spring. As a result, during dry, hot, humid weather it susceptible to the foliage disease powdery mildew. It otherwise shares the qualities of Monarda fistulosa listed above.
Monarda is in the mint family, and though it will spread in the garden to become a large, dense plant, it is not aggressive like true mints. In rich, consistently moist soil it will spread quickly, but in heavier clay or dry soils it will move much slower. In any case, it is shallow rooted and easy to thin out or divide.
Hybridizers have been crossing these species to develop a surprisingly wide range of flower colors, plant size and spread, and disease resistance. I’ll run through some of the varieties I’ve worked with or grown.
My favorite red is Jacob Cline, a tall selection that reaches up to five feet. I have it in the center of a large garden, and over the years it has spread about four feet and never had mildew. Gardenview Scarlet is an older variety with a garden height of 24-36 inches, and a tendency to produce double tiers of flower clusters. Fireball is a newer compact variety that reaches only 12-18 inches.
Raspberry Wine is my all-time favorite. A lovely ruby color, neither red nor purple, long-blooming on three-to-four-foot plants. Purple Rooster is a new selection with incredibly rich purple flowers on three-foot plants.
Marshall’s Delight is a nice soft pink with individual tubular flowers that are shorter, forming a ball rather than the typical shaggy cluster, and bloom profusely on compact, 24-inch plants. This proved to be the first of a long line.
Short, compact forms are the current rage, and within the last few years a dozen or more new series have been introduced—all less than 24” tall and in a full complement of colors. Pocahontas, Pardon My, Leading Lady and Marje, and others with cutesy names like Balmy, Bee You, Bee-Mine and Sugar Buzz.
I haven’t had a chance to try most of these, so I can’t report on whether they keep their promises for disease resistance. In any case you’ll do well to choose varieties with healthy, green, shiny leaves—a good indicator that foliage will remain healthy.
If you do find your plants showing signs of mildew, it is primarily a cosmetic problem and rarely weakens the plants. Treat with a garden fungicide to stop its progress, following package instructions carefully.
Whichever you choose, bee balm is a winner for you and the bees.