Monarda, or bee balm as we call it, is a member of the mint family, and a popular plant for attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. These growing tips will help beginner gardeners establish these well-loved plants in a cottage-style garden. Bee balm does tend to grow freely, so it may need some taming after a few years, although it tends not be truly invasive like other members of the mint family.
For more, see all my plant suggestions for a cottage-style garden, and have a look around my garden here.
Growing Bee Balm (Monarda)
Bee Balm | Genus: Monarda
Bee Balm Growing Tips
• Hardiness Zones 2 to 9
• Sun to part sun
• Soil: does not like to dry out
• Member of mint family
• Spreads by runners (underground stems)
• Can be aggressive
• Native to North America
My practical reason for growing bee balm is probably the very reason why some don’t like it: it’s a reliable, lovely, tall plant that hummingbirds love and requires little or no maintenance.
Because it spreads by runners (in the root system), one plant can become many in just a year or two. But it is much easier to control than other members of the mint family so I welcome it in my garden.
Bee Balm (Monarda) – Balmy Purple
I have a never-ending infatuation with the purple varieties and—don’t tell the others—hope to one day have them exclusively without any of the reds.
But, for now, I keep what I have because they are so popular with the pollinators and grow easily in my sandy soil.
Bee Balm Plant Facts & Growing Tips
Family LamiaceaeGenus MonardaSpeciesApproximately 50 cultivarsCommon name(s)Bee balm, horsemint, oswego, bergamotOrigin North AmericaTypeAnnual and perennial varietiesUSDA Zones2 to 9HeightUp to 5 feet tall (1.5m), some shorter varieties max out at 1-foot tallSpacingNot an issue: crowding is natural because they spread by runners (roots)Light Sun to part sunSoilMoist, well-drained soil; does not like to dry outFlower timesSummer | can deadhead or cutback after floweringColoursRed, purple, pink, lavender, white, mahoganyFertilizerNot requiredAttractsHummingbirds and butterfliesPropagationDivide plants or sow seedsPruning / Cutting backCut back after floweringProblemsSpreads by underground by runners: may be aggressive in some areas.
Prone to powdery mildew or leaf spot.Trivia | UsesCrushed leaves produce a spicy, fragrant oil.
Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma historically used for medicinal purposes as antiseptic skin poultices.
Wait! Before You Plant…
Plant Buying Checklist
Recommended for your growing zone.Not invasive in your area.Suits your growing conditions including sun, soil, water, and wind.Contributes to biodiversity by providing food, nectar, or habitat.
Bee Balm Products
Frequently Asked Questions
1Is bee balm invasive? Does bee balm spread?
Bee balm (Monarda) is a member of the mint family and spreads by runners (underground stems) and seed.
If you are growing this in Canada or the United States, it can be an aggressive grower.
This is a good example of a native plant that is beneficial to wildlife yet problematic for some growers.
In my experience (southwestern Ontario, Canada), it is not, however, truly invasive like some mints where the roots are nearly impossible to remove. Bee balm roots tend to be shallower and easy to pull. If it was like mint, I would only grow it containers.
I let it spread in my garden and pull some out every few years to leave room for other plants.
It is always good to check with your local university extension office or conservation group to research any plants you want to grow and be sure you are making environmentally-beneficial choices for your region.
2Can I grow bee balm from seed?
Yes. If you want to try a native species, look for it sold under the name Bergamot. I start mine from seed indoors and transplant it into the garden in late spring.
3Can I grow bee balm in containers?
Yes. In my experience, you can grow just about anything in a container if you can provide the required growing conditions (sun, water, nutrients, good potting mix, and room for roots to grow).
Look for dwarf varieties of Monarda if you want something more compact for growing in pots.
The catch is that, depending on your climate, you may need to overwinter them to prevent the soil (and therefore, roots) from freezing.
4Which color of bee balm do hummingbirds like?
I have pink, purple, and red bee balm. The hummers spend most of their time with the red, though they do take nectar from the others as well. I have not checked for research specifically on this but it does seem that some plant hybrids and cultivars have different flower formations that make it more difficult for the pollinators to feed, so choose a variety of bee balm the local hummingbirds and bees recommend.
Want Pollinators in Your Garden?
Choose plants used by local wildlife for food, nectar or habitat.
Options will be different in each growing region.Grow trees and shrubs for habitat.Avoid use of any products toxic to pollinators.Keep it natural: don’t tidy up too much.
Dead and decaying things nourish living things.Keep pets out of your garden.
5Do I need to prune bee balm?
When flowering is done, the current growth will gradually die back. You can cut the stalks down to 4-inches in late fall or early spring.
I don’t cut mine back simply because they otherwise ‘disappear’ in the winter and I forget where they are planted which can cause some spring weeding mistakes.
6My bee balm flowers changed color. Why is this?
Yes, sometimes the flowers will change color.
There are lots of Monarda hybrids and hybrids by nature have unpredictable reproduction, often displaying traits from their genetic heritage. So don’t be surprised if a light pink or purple one is red next year.
Bee balm can also cross-pollinate so yours may be getting pollinated by some neighboring bee balm flowers in different colors.
If your experience is like mine, one color will become dominant over the years. In my case, I love the deep purple ones but I have ended up with a garden of red flowers.
I suspect the key is to love whatever shows up.
Happy gardening! And be sure to sign up for the free newsletter.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛