Bee balm (Monarda didyma) is an herbaceous perennial plant in the mint family that’s easy to grow and care for. Its vibrant summer flowers and medicinal properties make it a valuable plant for humans and wildlife. It’s also commonly known as ‘bergamot plant’.
It’s native to North America, where it was traditionally used by Native American tribes for medicinal purposes. The plant was used to treat a variety of ailments, including sore throats, colds and fever. Today, bee balm is still used in herbal medicine, and its leaves can be used to make a tea that is believed to have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
How to grow bee balm
Growing and caring for bee balm in your own garden is easy. It’s a great plant choice for gardeners looking to attract native wildlife to their garden, while also enjoying the beauty of its bright-red, pink or purple flowers that are like magnets to pollinators.
Bee balm has natural insect-repelling properties, so it can be used as a ‘companion plant’ to repel pests such as aphids, flea beetles and spider mites. Planting it alongside vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers can help to deter these pests, and promote healthy growth.
Where to grow bee balm
Bee balm needs full sun to partial shade and requires a free-draining, moist soil, but it can tolerate dry conditions once established. In terms of climate, bee balm is a hardy plant that can withstand temperatures as low as -20°C. It’s also drought-resistant, making it an excellent choice for gardens in areas prone to dry spells and as part of a ‘water-wise’ garden.
How to plant bee balm
When planting bee balm, choose a location that receives full sun to partial shade and has moist but free-draining soil. Dig a hole that’s slightly larger than the plant’s rootball and gently loosen the roots before planting. Bee balm is prone to powdery mildew, so space the plants to approximately 45cm apart to allow good air circulation. Water well after planting and keep the soil moist until the plant has established.
How to care for bee balm
Bergamot is a low-maintenance plant that requires little care once established. Water the plants regularly during dry spells and mulch around the base to help retain moisture. Deadhead the flowers regularly to encourage continued blooming and prevent the plant from going to seed too quickly. In terms of position, bee balm does best in a spot that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.
Bear in mind that bee balm typically blooms in its second year of growth. In the first year, the plant establishes a strong root system and may not produce any flowers.
How to prune bee balm
Pruning bee balm is an important part of its care regime. It’s best to prune in spring before new growth appears. Cut back the stems to about 12cm from the ground, removing any dead or damaged growth. This will help to promote new growth and prevent the plant from becoming too leggy or overcrowded. You can also pinch back the stems throughout the growing season to encourage bushier growth and prevent the plant from becoming too tall. Removing any dead or diseased foliage will also help to prevent the spread of pests and diseases.
While bee balm is not considered an invasive species in the UK, it’s always a good idea to monitor your garden for plants that may be spreading beyond their intended area. If you notice that it is spreading too much, prevent it from becoming a problem by dividing the plant and planting it in a new location.
While bee balm is a hardy plant that can withstand cold temperatures, it’s a good idea to cut back the stems in autumn after the first frost. This will help to prevent the plant from developing mildew or other diseases over winter. Leave about 5-8cm of stem above the ground and mulch around the base of the plant to help protect the roots.
How to propagate bee balm
Propagate from seed or existing plants. If from seed, sow them indoors in early spring, and transplant outside once they have sprouted and the risk of frost has passed. Alternatively, you can propagate bee balm from cuttings taken from existing plants. Simply take a cutting from a healthy stem, remove the lower leaves and plant the cutting in a pot filled with moist cutting compost. Keep the compost moist and the cutting in a shaded area until it has established roots.
To divide bee balm, dig up the plant in the spring or autumn and carefully separate the roots into smaller sections. Replant the sections in a new location or give them to friends and family.
Pests and diseases
While bee balm is a relatively pest-resistant plant, it can still be susceptible to certain pests and diseases. Common pests that may affect it include aphids and thrips. Both of these species are at the bottom of the food chain, and are naturally controlled by birds and wasps. However, if they appear in significant numbers you may consider spraying them with a mixture of water and washing-up liquid or using an insecticidal soap spray. Bear in mind that, along with aphids, you may also be spraying natural predators like ladybirds and hoverfly larvae.
Fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew, can also affect bee balm, particularly in humid or wet conditions. To prevent these, avoid overhead watering and ensure that the plants have good air circulation.