Red Bee Balm – Monarda Didyma

Bee Balm is a herbaceous perennial that grows in medium to moist soil and full sun / partial shade with dark red flowers.  This plant is loved by hummingbirds and butterflies, and is sure to bring some great pollinator action to your yard or garden.  Since it blooms so long, if you are looking to attract hummingbirds to your yard, this plant is an absolute MUST HAVE.  It is in the mint family and spreads by shallow roots that run just under the soil, which make it very easy to propagate.  But these shallow roots can also make it somewhat invasive in a ‘manicured’ flower bed.  It is easy to manage this, as the shallow roots make it easy to contain.  I love this plant, as it will fill in holes by itself creating a full flower garden, which helps prevent weeds from germinating in bare spots.Bee Balm monarda didyma beebalm

 Facts

  • Red Bee Balm is hardy in zones 4-9, check your USDA garden zone here.
  • Is a member of the mint family of plants
  • The common name of bee balm refers to its historical use for treating bee stings
  • Has a long bloom duration of 4 weeks or more for established plants
  • Grows to a height of 4-5′ in optimum conditions
  • Is native in the central and eastern United States
  • Monarda Didyma has high ecological value and medicinal properties!

Physical Description

Beebalm will grow seemingly in clumps or colonies if left unchecked by competition.  There will be tall stalks shooting up from the ground.  Each stalk will contain a flower.  Sometimes the stalks will have branches leading to more flowers, sometimes not.

A colony of bee balm I let go wild along our property edge. I often see hummingbirds dart in and out of it while blooming.

Stalk / Stem

The stalk/stem of Scarlet Bee Balm has a square shape, as do all mint plants.  It will grow straight up from the ground and can have small hairs.  Depending on the sunlight and fertility of the soil, it will grow between 2-5′ tall.

Leaves

The leaves of Monarda Didyma are kind of round/egg shaped or oviate.  The edges are serrated.  The overall size of a full grown leaf will be 3-5″ long by about half as wide (1.5-2.5″) at the widest portion.

Scarlet Bee Balm preparing to bloom. Note that there are pairs of leaves opposite of each other on the stalk.

Flower

The flower head of Bee Balm will be about 2-4″ diameter.  On the head will be tubular flowers that are in rings, and will arc or bend down.  The tubular flowers are approximately 1-1/5″ long, consisting of an upper and lower lip.  These long tubular flowers can be pollinated by hummingbirds and certain butterflies.monarda didyma bloom flower

Root

The root is a shallow rhizome.  There will be small long roots running several feet, each throwing up some new stalks, creating new plants.  Bee balm can easily colonize a small area if there isn’t much competition present. These rhizomes make it very easy to take small cuttings and propagate new plants by transplanting.

Like this plant?  Click on image below to see our overview of other Bee Balm Species!

 

Growing Conditions

The preferred growing conditions for Monarda didyma is partial shade with fertile, black loamy soil that is well draining but moist.  I have two colonies at my home, one in an area that gets ample shade and is on a long slope.  This creates great conditions for the plant to spread.  The other colony was started by the previous owners, and they used landscape fabric.  Well, the rhizomes of this colony grow in a small section of dirt/mulch that sits above the landscape fabric.  So, that is some solid evidence that this plant is short rooted!

In addition to the two larger colonies, I dug a couple of young seedlings in the Spring to add this plant to our backyard micro-prairie.  Now, the soil in our micro-prairie is rocky clay and is located at the end of a long slope in our yard, which tends to allow for moist soil.  The plants I added are doing just fine in clay soil, and all of them bloomed this year.  So, based on my experience you can call Bee Balm ‘clay tolerant’.

How to care for Bee Balm

This plant doesn’t require much care if grown in its preferred conditions.  It can tolerate occasional drought.  During times of drought you may notice the lower leaves fall off.  If that occurs, you should probably give it some water, as the leaves falling off are sometimes a sign of too dry of conditions.  So, just plant it in the right conditions and let it thrive.

They don’t require supplemental fertilizer, and may not bloom if over-fertilized. If you want to amend the soil with compost, that will be fine if you do it in early Spring or Autumn.  But you do not need to apply Miracle Grow or other synthetic fertilizers to this plant.  See our easy way to compost by clicking below:

How to make a Compost Pile – KEEP IT SIMPLE!!!

Maintenance

I find that the only maintenance that is truly necessary is to pull unwanted seedlings.  If it begins creeping into other areas, I just pull/snip the seedling at the root.

If after several years though you notice that the plant is not blooming as much, it could be because the plant is getting quite crowded.  Should this occur, you should divide the plant the following Spring when new foliage begins to emerge.  This will provide new space, and reinvigorate the plant.

How to Establish and Propagate Bee Balm

Growing Bee Balm from Seed

The seeds from Monarda didyma will get a higher germination rate if they are cold/moist stratified for 2-3 months prior to planting.  The seeds like to germinate in colder soil as well.  So, if you are going to order seed online, do so in mid-Autumn.  Then plant the seed immediately outside by direct sowing, or in pots for winter sowing.  That way you let nature stratify the seeds for you, and you can expect germination in the Spring.  But if you have any specific questions on how to do this, ask me in the comments and I will try to answer it as best that I can!

Bee Balm Seedlings
Red Bee Balm seedling. (Monarda didyma)

Bee balm seed planting Depth

The seeds for Monarda didyma require light to germinate, so just sprinkle and press them into the soil.

Process for Propagating via rhizomes

If you know where some bee balm currently grows, you can easily get new plants from taking young seedlings that grew from the shallow rhizome runner roots.  In early Spring, just locate some small plants (well before flowering – never transplant a flower that is in bloom).

  1. In early Spring, carefully dig around the bee balm seedling and expose the rhizome from whence it grew
  2. Cut off several inches of the rhizome on either side of the small/new stalk.
  3. Wrap the roots in a moist paper towel
  4. Then go replant the seedling and root in the new location, or a pot of an appropriate size
  5. Mulch over the roots, and keep the soil moist.  But keep mulch away from the stalk to prevent fungus.

Garden Uses

This plant is a great addition to a rain garden, as it likes moisture.  Just make sure it isn’t swimming in water all the time.  Remember, it likes moist but ‘well-drained’ soil!  We have propagated several of these via rhizome cuttings for use in our Micro-prairie, as the soil is generally damp since it is on the back of a slope.  I really like that it will fill any voids and keep weeds down, while not interfering with the good native plants we have growing.  That is a really big benefit to us, as we are in a seemingly never-ending battle with the horribly invasive nutsedge, garlic mustard and mile-a-minute vine.Bee Balm monarda didyma beebalm

But this is really a versatile plant.  It is right at home in a wildflower setting as well as a manicured garden.  But, you just need to make sure you snip off any unwanted seedlings in a manicured setting, or give it a natural border under the soil that the rhizomes can’t penetrate.

See how to make you own backyard ‘micro’ prairie by clicking below!

How To Make a Micro-Prairie

Fauna

Red Beebalm is a hummingbird magnet!  The red color always seems to help attract hummingbirds.  But it is visited by other butterflies as well.  I’ve seen Tiger Swallowtail butterflies pollinating my plants, as well as other smaller varieties that I wasn’t able to identify as I didn’t have my camera.

But one thing that is really nice about these flowers is that they will consistently attract the pollinators for a long period of time due to their long bloom duration.  Now, a word of caution – if helping hummingbirds is your goal then try to make sure you have a true native variety and not a hybrid or cultivar.  Studies have shown that some of hybrids are not easily pollinated by hummingbirds.  Additionally some hybrids don’t provide as much nutrition as a true native Monarda.

Pests and diseases

I have never noticed bee balm being browsed by rabbits or deer.  And if you crush some leaves you can notice a strong smell, that probably keeps them away.  I have never seen any damage from mammals eating the foliage of  Bee Balm.

However, powdery mildew is a common occurrence on all types of Monarda.  In my gardens, with all of my plants I have never treated for powdery mildew, and all of the plants seem to survive just fine.  The only adverse effect is a slight whitening of the leaves from the mildew.  It is quite strange, as I have had it occur on plants that are growing in an full sun open area with plenty of air movement.  Those conditions are supposed to prevent powdery mildew.  But my Monarda didyma and Monarda fistulosa both seem to get powdery mildew no matter the location.

Bee balm powdery mildew
Powdery Mildew on Bee Balm

If you wish to treat the plant for powdery mildew, there are a number of fungicides available.  You can also try a mix of 1 part hydrogen peroxide (just the normal, over-the-counter weak type) to 9 parts water and spray on the leaves.  I have used this mixture to treat other fungus on plants that are in shade, and it has worked just fine.Bee balm powdery mildew

Like this article?  Then click below to see other Bee Balm varities you can grow that bloom during other times of the year!  Also, don’t forget to see our quick reference table at the bottom of this post.

Bee Balm Growing Reference Table

Red Bee Balm Reference Table
Common Name Red Bee Balm, Crimson Beebalm, Scarlet Bee Balm, Oswego Tea, Bergamot
Scientific name Monarda Didyma
Bloom Time Spring/Summer
Bloom Duration 4 Weeks
Color Red
Bloom Size ‘2-4” diameter flower heads
Bloom Characteristics Round flowers covered in curved/vertical red tubular flowers.  The tubes are quite small, 1/16-1/8” diameter tubes.
Height 2-4’
Spacing/Spread 2-3’
Light Requirements Partial sun, Full sun
Soil Types Loam, Clay
Moisture Moist, medium – but well drained
Maintenance Pull unwanted plants
Typical Use Rain garden, wildflower garden, backyard micro prairie, flower bed
Fauna Associations Hummingbirds, butterflys
Larval Host Hermit Sphinx Moth, Pyralid Moth, Gray Marvel Moth
Sowing Depth Surface
Stratification 60-90 days cold moist stratification – best to direct sow in fall

More comments on Bee Balm

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this write-up on Bee Balm!  This really is a great plant to have in your garden.  I have found Beebalm to be one of the best plants for attracting hummingbirds, as they seem to be drawn to the dark red color.  You may want the head over to our other native plant profiles to learn about some other interesting flowers you could grow for your garden that benefit the environment as well as look pretty!  Got any questions?  Leave a comment and I will try to get back to you!

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