Planting for Pollinators is the Master Gardener Theme for 2016 and the perfect perennial for your garden that your pollinators will love is bee balm (Monarda). In fact you’ll see this blooming now in roadsides, prairies, landscapes and gardens. Bee balm blooms July through August and it’s almost always covered in bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, which love it.
Bee balm grows 2 to 4 feet with 1 1/2- to 3-inch blooms in a variety of colors, including hot pinks, purple, red and lavender. There are a few dwarf cultivars as well that only grow 10 to 15 inches tall.
Bee balm is a member of the mint family and like plants in the mint family, has square stems, opposite leaves, and is very aromatic. It’s sometimes referred to as bergamot. The foliage has a minty flavor and can be used in herbal teas, salads and as garnishes. Like nasturtium, the flowers are edible.
Bee balms are easy to grow and will bloom profusely year after year with just a few requirements. Bee balm needs full sun as it won’t bloom well in shade. Bee balm also likes moist, but well draining soil and will require water once a week in very hot and dry spells. This perennial favorite doesn’t require a lot of fussing. Fertilize with 10-10-10 all purpose fertilizer in early spring. If you want to prolong the blooming time you can deadhead the spent flower heads, but it’s not required. Bee balm grows and spreads rapidly.
Bee balm spreads through underground stems or stolons. It will need to be divided about every three years. It’s easy to divide and share, and best to do so in early spring as soon as the plant comes up from the ground. Dig up big clumps and divide into sections with a sharp knife, making sure each section has at least three shoots and good roots. Replant promptly. Bee balms don’t have a lot of insect problems, but they can have problems with powdery mildew, which is a fungal disease.
Powdery mildew attacks other plants as well and looks like a gray to whitish “powder” on the leaf surfaces. It’s more common on crowded plants that haven’t been properly divided and on those in shade. Powdery mildew can be prevented if bee balms are planted in full sun, spaced properly and divided every three years. After blooming in the fall, remove and destroy any heavily infested parts of the plant so the powdery mildew spores can’t overwinter. There also are varieties of bee balm available that are more resistant to powdery mildew. Iowa State Extension suggests the following varieties: Marshall’s Delight, Gardenview Scarlet, Violet Queen, Raspberry Wine and Colrain Red.
I have Marshall’s Delight (tall deep pink) and Jacob Cline (really tall red) along with some dwarf varieties planted in my yard and I, plus the pollinators, love it.