Monarda Didyma – Complete Guide to Red Bee Balm


If you want to attract Hummingbirds to your garden, there is probably no other plant that can reliably do so than Monarda didyma. Commonly known as Bee Balm (and many other names), this wildflower is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds. I’ve grown dozens of this plant over the last 7 years and have become very skilled at growing, caring for, and propagating it through several means. So, stick around and I will tell you all you need to know to grow this wonderful, true hummingbird magnet!

Monarda didyma, Scarlet Bee Balm

If you have been researching Bee Balm on the internet, you may be feeling a bit confused. That’s OK! Unfortunately the common name “Bee Balm” gets applied to several members of the Monarda genus.

This article will only cover the red Bee Balm, Monarda didyma. From her on out I will refer to it as ‘Bee Balm’ to keep things simple.

But if you would like a broad overview of the different flowers that get labeled, “Bee Balm”, then click here to read our guide to all members of the Monarda genus!

In this article:

What is Scarlet Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

Monarda didyma is a perennial wildflower native to North America that blooms bright red blooms for a month in late Spring to early Summer, and is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds. Commonly known as Bee Balm, it will grow 2-4 feet tall in full sun and well drained soil under moist-to-medium soil conditions.

Other names of Bee Balm include Scarlet Bee Balm, Jacob Cline Bee Balm, Red Bee Balm, and Oswego Tea. Or, some people will also just refer to it as “Monarda”, which is the genus the plant belongs to.

But, if you are interested in reading more on the beautiful Red Bee Balm, continue!

Reference Table

Scientific NameMonarda didyma
Common NamesBee Balm, Scarlet Bee Balm, Oswego Tea, Jacob Cline Bee Balm, Red Bee Balm
Native Range, USDA ZoneEastern United States, Mid-Atlantic & New England, USDA Zone 4-9
Blooming SeasonLate Spring, Early Summer (~4 weeks)
Bloom Duration, ColorBlooms for 4 weeks, Red
Height2-4′ tall (60-120 cm)
Spacing / Spread2-3′ (60-90 cm)
Light RequirementsFull Sun to partial Shade
Soil TypesSandy Loam, Clay, Loam
MoistureMoist to Medium
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsBumblebees, Butterflies, Hummingbirds

What is Bee Balm good for?

Bee Balm is beautiful

There are many benefits of growing Monarda didyma. The primary benefit is by far the beauty you will bring to your yard! The prominent red blooms can give your gardens a stunning red show for a month. Longer if you deadhead!

Hummingbirds LOVE Bee Balm

Bee Balm and Hummingbirds are almost always found together! For native perennials, there is probably no other plant that attracts as many ruby throated hummingbirds as red Bee Balm. Studies have shown that it is mainly pollinated by hummingbirds, as they are the most frequent visitor.[1]

Credit Linda Carlsen Sperry

Monarda didyma grows well in clay soil

You can easily grow Bee Balm in clay soil. Many people spend years fighting clay soil rather than selecting plants that thrive in it! The clay helps retain moisture which is necessary for the Red Bee Balm to survive.

Need some other flowers that grow well in clay? Click here

Bee Balm blooms when most other plants are not blooming!

The late Spring to early Summer window is often devoid of color! Most homes have early Spring Bulbs, but then are a flower desert until Summer sets in and their roses and perennials take off! You can use Scarlet Bee Balm to bridge the blooming gap.

Bee Balm is medicinal!

From the Native Americans to modern times, herbalists use Bee Balm to medicinally. Hence another common name for it – Oswego Tea! [2] Both leaves and flowers can be used medicinally.

Bee Balm Characteristics and Identification

Bee Balm is a perennial that will grow between 2-4′ tall depending on conditions. Naturally clump forming, it’s natural habitat is open woodlands and along streams, as it prefers moist to medium soil with lots of organic matter.

And Bee Balm has cold tolerance and is frost hardy. It can be grown USDA Zones 4-9. So you can keep Bee Balm coming back year after year since it is a perennial.

Bee Balm Stalk / Stem

As a member of the mint family, Bee Balm will have a 4-sided or square stem. The stem will be light green in appearance and slightly hairy to smooth. In full sun and competition the plant can reach 4-5′ tall.

Bee Balm leaves

Leaves of Bee Balm are opposite along the stem, 4-5″ long by 2″ wide, and ovate in shape. Deeply veined with serrated edges, the leaves are generally dark green but will have red or purple shades on them.

Bee Balm Flower

Bee Balm flowering time will be late Spring to early Summer with blooms lasting for about 4 weeks. Bee Balm blooming duration can be prolonged with deadheading

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. Bumblebees can sometimes force their way down the tube, as is shown in the video later in this article.

The flower blooms in stages, starting off small and blooming in the center. As those flowers are pollinated the ring of red flowers will expand radially to the outer diameter, resulting in the flower head growing in size.

Early stage flower of Bee Balm

Bee Balm Seed Heads

Birds have eaten seed from this Bee Balm seed head.

About 4 weeks after blooming seed will be formed in tubes that make up the seed head. If one is to collect seed, you need to be quick! My own research has shown that seed from Monarda didyma easily falls out of the tubes.

For a complete guide to saving seed from Monarda, click here.

Roots of Bee Balm

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 shallow rhizomes make it very easy to take small cuttings and propagate new plants by transplanting.

Bee Balm growing conditions

Does Bee Balm like sun or shade?

Bee Balm, Monarda didyma can grow in Full Sun (6+ hours direct sunlight per day) to partial shade (4-6 hours direct sun per day).

The more sunlight Bee Balm receives, the larger the plant will grow. And the more blooms it will receive. But Bee Balm light requirements are at least 4 hours direct sun per day.

Bee Balm Water Requirements

The preference of Bee Blam is moist to medium soil. It can take occasional flooding. But Bee Balm does not tolerate drought very well.

Bee Balm Soil Requirements

Monarda didyma / Bee Balm can grow in clay soil, or soils with a decent amount of organic matter present.

Video on how to grow and care for Bee Balm

Bee Balm Maintenance

As a native plant, Bee Balm generally won’t require significant maintenance or special care. There are however, a few key things to know.

Bee Balm Spacing is important!

Bee Balm, and all members of the Monarda genus are quite susceptible to Powdery Mildew, which is a fungus. Properly spacing Bee Balm plants 2-3′ apart will help increase airflow that will keep the leaves more dry. The drier the leaves, the less likely your plants will get Powdery Mildew.

Bee Balm Care in the Fall and Winter

At the end of season or in the fall / Winter Bee Balm can be cut back to the ground. Simply take some pruning shears and snip off any dead or brown stalks.

Bee Balm will have small basal leaves that stay green (evergreen) all winter at the base of the plant. Do not cut these leaves.

Is Bee Balm Invasive?

Since Bee Balm can spread via horizontal rhizome roots, some may consider it locally invasive. Without competition in a mulched flower bed, the roots can spread far and wide. This is similar behavior to almost any member of the mint family.

I let this Bee Balm patch spread wherever it wants.

It is easy to control the spread of Bee Balm. The roots are quite shallow, making it easy to remove any unwanted plants. This also makes it easy propagate by cutting the roots and saving new plants.

A passive way to control Bee Balm from spreading

But another, more passive way to control Bee Balm spreading is to plant it inside of a pot. You basically cut the bottom out of a pot, and plant your Bee Balm inside of the pot. The plastic walls of the pot will act as a barrier to the horizontal roots.

We have a step by step guide stop plants spreading here.

How to Grow Bee Balm from Seed

Bee Balm seed germination will generally occur within 2 weeks of planting. Seeds for Monarda didyma require no special treatment. No stratification or scarification is required. Although Bee Balm seeds do require exposure to sunlight to germinate.

Steps to germinate Bee Balm seed

  1. Fill a pot or container with moist potting soil or mix. Leave a 1/2″ (12 mm) gap from the top
  2. Gently pack the soil so it is firm
  3. Scatter 3-5 Bee Balm seeds on top of the soil.
  4. Press these into the soil with your finger. Do not cover them, as Bee Balm seed needs light to germinate.
  5. Mist seeds with a hand sprayer to keep the soil moist.
  6. Place container in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.
Seedling of Monarda didyma, aka Bee Balm. his is about 2 weeks after germination. The seedling is about 1/4″ wide (6 mm).

Seeds generally germinate two to three weeks after sowing. In the video above, I had Bee Balm germination seven days after sowing. Here is a link to the exact time in the video where you can see how to plant Bee Balm from seed.

How to grow Bee Balm from rhizome cuttings

Due to the nature of Bee Balm spreading, every Spring you will be treated to new sprouts. Once really easy way to propagate Bee Balm is to just dig up these new sprouts in the Spring. It is really an easy way to get a whole lot of free plants!

Process to propagate Bee Balm via rhizome cuttings

  1. Locate the young sprouts by identifying the leaves. See image above.
  2. Gently dig up about 2″ on each side of the sprout, to locate the thin rhizome root.
  3. Cut the root, so that you have approximately 2″ on each side of the sprout.
  4. Plant the sprout immediately in a container with moist potting soil
  5. Take care of this plant as if it were a new seedling. In about 6 weeks it will be fully mature.

Tending to Bee Balm seedlings

As your Bee Balm seedlings grow, transplant them to larger pots. I prefer 4″ pots that are 3-4″ deep. This allows for enough root development in the plant so that the stalk can grow.

How to Keep Bee Balm Blooming

By deadheading Bee Balm you can prolong it’s blooming season. Although the second round of blooming will not be as dramatic or large as the initial bloom. But it is quite simple to do, and it will keep your BeeBalm blooming a bit longer.

Steps to deadhead bee balm

  1. Wait until a Bee Balm bloom finishes and has dropped all of it’s petals
  2. Follow the bloom down to the next pair of leaves along the stem
  3. Cut the stem, just above this junction of leaves

Bee Balm Planting Guide

When a Bee Balm seedling has reached 4-6″ tall, it is ready for planting into the garden. It needs to be in an area that has moist to medium soil, as Bee Balm is not drought tolerant.

To plant Bee Balm into the garden:

  1. Choose a location that receives at least 4 hours of sun per day.
  2. Dig hole one and a half to twice as wide as the size of your pot, and to slightly more depth.
  3. Add a handful of compost to the bottom of the hole.
  4. Fill the hole with water and wait for it to drain
  5. Carefully remove the plant from the pot. Place the plant in the center of the hole
  6. Back-fill the soil, mixing some compost with the soil you are putting back into the hole

Bee Balm Companion Plants

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Purpurea) planted with Bee Balm
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Purpurea) planted with Bee Balm

Bee Balm grows well with any other sun-loving perennial that can tolerate medium to moist soil. So, there are quite a few companion plants. Some of my favorites include:

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases

Bee Balm Pollinators

Ruby throated hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of Bee Balm, Monarda didyma. This has been documented, as they visit the flower more frequently than any other pollinator.

Credit Joe Schneid

But Bee Balm will also attract large Swallowtail butterflies and certain bees. Bumblebees are able to force their way down the tubular flowers to reach the nectar.

Bee Balm and deer / rabbits

Bee Balm is deer resistant. Rabbits also avoid Bee Balm. The foliage of Bee Balm has a strong aroma which keeps mammalian herbivores away.

Bee Balm and Powdery Mildew

The primary disease that effects Bee Balm is Powdery Mildew. This is a fungus that looks like gray or white powder on the leaves of Bee Balm. The primary effect is only cosmetic. Outside of the color, in severe cases the leaves can drop.

Bee Balm Powdery Mildew

You can reduce the severity or likelihood of powdery mildew, as well as any other fungus by spacing your plants apart so that air can freely flow between them. Doing so dries out the leaves, which will reduce fungus.

Also, making sure the soil doesn’t dry out will reduce the likelihood of powdery mildew. This may seem counterintuitive, but the dry soil can reduce the plants natural defenses against powdery mildew. [3]

Bee Balm Leaf Spot Fungus

Another fungus that can effect Bee Balm is commonly known as leaf spot fungus. Again, you should space plants enough to promote airflow and not let the soil dry out to help prevent this disease.

Remove any leaves that exhibit yellow, orange, or reddish spots on leaves. You can also treat the plant with fungicides or oils.

Where you can buy Bee Balm

Bee Balm is readily available in many garden centers. Read the tag carefully though, as many hybrids and cultivars are sold. To attract the most pollinators, you want to make sure you are buying a true species that will have the Latin name, Monarda didyma.

But if you are mainly interested in the ornamental aspect of Bee Balm, then you should have no problem finding a cultivar just for you. There are over 40 different cultivars on the market as of the late 90’s. [2]

Uses of Bee Balm

Bee Balm used in landscaping

One of the more versatile plants for landscaping, Bee Balm can be used in formal flower beds or wild areas. If you are trying to get some nice vegetation around a mail box or pole, Bee Balm can also be a good choice as it will fill itself in.

If using in formal flower beds, you should really use our trick to keep mint plants from spreading. This contains the rhizome roots to a certain area, from which no further plants will sprout up.

But I have several areas where we grow Bee Balm. Let’s have a look at those now.

A formal flower bed attached to our house:

Several patches in our backyard micro-prairie:

Can you spot the hummingbird? They are difficult to photograph.

And a wild area that just sort of ‘sprang up’, probably from the previous owners throwing cuttings over the fence in the fall. But it is filling in nicely, and the Bee Balm seems to be doing well competing against the invasive species.

Bee Balm in Containers

Because Bee Balm has shallow roots, it is a great native flower to grow in pots. The shallow roots mean that you can even use some shorter pots to grow it.

But you should select a pot that is at least 12″ diameter (30 cm) for growing Bee Balm. This will ensure that the shallow roots do have enough room to spread out a bit.

Also, never let the pot dry out as this will increase the chances of powdery mildew infect your plant. Furthermore, dry soil in a pot can make the overall plant/pot top-heavy, and prone to tipping over.

Bee Balm Edibility

Flowers of Bee Balm are particularly nutritous, containing many nutrients, and antioxidents. [4] [5]. Just pluck out individual flowers from the flower head. Use them fresh or dry them in the shade for storage. They make a nice garnish or topper for a salad, and a delicate tea [6].

Leaves of Bee Balm are edible. Although the leaves have a more potent flavor than the flowers. So, they will make a better tea. But careful how you use them in a salad!

Bee Balm Essential Oils

Essential oils extracted from Bee Balm have been found to have antimicrobial activity and strong antioxidant properties. The oils have been found to act against harmful and benign forms of bacteria and fungi from animal, human, and plant sources. [7] [8]

Additionally in some countries and areas Bee Balm is used to treat a number of ailments such as headaches, burns, eczema, and digestive issues.

Bee Balm essential oil as a pesticide

And finally, research is on-going in Europe as to using Essential Oils from Bee Balm as pesticides. As agriculture pesticide regulation increases in Europe, they are turning to chemicals they can extract from plants naturally to help control pests.

They have found that essential oils from plants generally don’t harm anything but the target insect. And that the essential oil pesticide does not linger in the environment long, and quickly breaks down. [9]

Bee Balm Medicinal

Many Native American tribes used Bee Balm medicinally. The Cherokee in particular had over 12 unique uses for it, from a cold remedy to food. [10] Some of the medicinal uses include the following:

  • A poultice of leaves was used to treat headaches and common colds
  • Febrifuge to treat measles or to ‘sweat off the flu’
  • Infusion of leaf and flower used for weak bowels, stomach, and other gastrointestinal issues.
  • An infusion for heart medicine
  • Used to treat nosebleeds
  • Used to improve sleep, treat hysterics

Learn more about other Bee Balm varieties here

References:

[1] Whitten. Pollination Ecology of Monarda didyma, M. clinopodia, and Hybrids (Lamiaceae) in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. American Journal of Botany
Vol. 68, No. 3 (Mar., 1981), pp. 435-442 (8 pages)

[2] Davidson C.G. (2007) Monarda, Bee-balm. In: Anderson N.O. (eds) Flower Breeding and Genetics. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4428-1_28

[3] – Richard G. Hawke, Coordinator of Plant Evaluation Programs, Monarda and Powdery Mildew Resistance, Plant Evaluation Notes – Chicago Botanic Garden, Issue 12, 1998

[4] – STEFANIAK, A., & GRZESZCZUK, M. E. (2018). Nutritional and Biological Value of Five Edible Flower Species. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca, 47(1), 128-134. https://doi.org/10.15835/nbha47111136

[5] – Acikgoz, F. (2017). Edible Flowers. Journal of Experimental Agriculture International, 17(1), 1-5. https://doi.org/10.9734/JEAI/2017/34564

[6] – Edible Flowers. Colorado State University Ag Extension. Fact Sheet 7.237. https://mountainscholar.org/bitstream/handle/10217/217223/AEXT_07237_202010.pdf?sequence=1. Retrieved 13FEB2021

[7] – Paola Mattarelli, Francesco Epifano, Paola Minardi, Maura Di Vito, Monica Modesto, Lorenzo Barbanti & Maria Grazia Bellardi (2017) Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activity of Essential Oils from Aerial Parts of Monarda didyma and Monarda fistulosa Cultivated in Italy, Journal of Essential Oil Bearing Plants, 20:1, 76-86, DOI: 10.1080/0972060X.2016.1278184

[8] – Nicoleta, BOJINESCU, FEATURES OF THE SPECIES MONARDA DIDYMA CULTIVATED UNDER THE PEDOCLIMATIC CONDITIONS OF DIDACTIC-EXPERIMENTAL STATION IN TIMISOARA, ROMANIA, Research Journal of Agricultural Science, 52 (1), 2020

[9] – Francati & Gualandi, Side effects of essential oils of Monarda fistulosa L. and M. didyma L. on the tachinid parasitoid Exorista larvarum (L.): a preliminary study Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna, 2017. Retrieved 13FEB2021

[10] – Native American Ethnobotany Database

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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