If Jim Henson Designed a Flower, It Would Be Bee Balm
Jul 10, 2018
Who here remembers Fraggle Rock? The flowers from some of our favorite bee balm varieties remind us of Jim Henson's tiny Muppet characters. The bravest Fraggles would sneak like mice through Doc's cottage garden—avoiding a shaggy mutt named Sprocket—to embark on their adventures and hijinks. Lucky for them, their feathery, colorful mops of hair are the perfect camouflage for hiding among long-blooming bee balm plants.
If you want to attract Fraggles to your garden, we carry two different varieties of bee balm as well as a vivid variety pack. Pick and choose from the following:
Bee balm, like all Monardas, is a member of the mint family, and as such it's just as useful in the garden as it is in your herbal cache. If you couldn't guess by the name, bee balm is a hit not only with Muppets but with bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects, and the leaves and flowers make a popular herbal tea.
Bee Balm's Cultural History
If you look up "bergamot" or "bee balm", you'll learn about Oswego tea. Early colonists in North America adopted the beverage from the Oswego First Nation tribes when their own English stock ran low. It was likely the substitute for the tea shipments chucked into the bay after the famous Boston Tea Party.
Honeybees love bee balm, but the plant's also known for soothing insect stings and bites. So while it's a balm to the bees, it's also a balm for those who mess with them.
Since we've mentioned bees, European colonists and First Nation tribes, we might as well share a little fun fact: Apis mellifera, most commonly known as the European honeybee, is an introduced species. Native Americans called them the "white man's fly", and considered them to be the vanguards of expansion into their own territories. When a hive sends out an extra queen and a bunch of bees in a swarm, that swarm becomes a new colony and often settles several miles away from the original hive so it doesn't compete with forage. So when aboriginal Americans saw honeybees, they'd shout, "There goes the neighborhood!" and act accordingly.
Bee Balm's Medicinal Benefits
Because of the misuse of the name "bee balm," most herbalists use the common name "bergamot." Though really, that's no less confusing, since bergamot also refers to the citrus plant Citrus bergamia, or bergamot orange. In fact, since both the herb and the citrus smell alike, the former is named after the latter.
While both are often referred to as "bee balm," don't confuse Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) with the Monardas. Lemon balm has its own favorable qualities, but it doesn't deserve the "bee balm" moniker.
The Oswego people weren't the only ones to use bee balm. Tribes across North America embraced it, and some populations had their own unique applications. For a more in-depth look at bee balm's role in aboriginal medicine, check out Cloverleaf Farm's Herbal Encyclopedia.
Here are the symptoms and illnesses crushed bee balm leaves and Oswego tea are known to ease:
- Menstrual cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Wound care (cleansing and to stem blood flow, antiseptic)
- Muscle pain
- Respiratory issues
- Eye irritation
- Coughs and congestion
The active chemical in bee balm is thymol, and in fact, bee balm is the only plant native to the New World with concentrations significant enough to process. Beekeepers use thymol as a preventative against tracheal mites...so once again, we've reinforced the bond between bees and bee balm.
Bee balm, like most other herbs, shouldn't be used by pregnant women, and we recommend that our customers check with their physicians before using any concentrated herbal products.
Ready to grow your own?
Bee Balm's General Characteristics
Each variety of bee balm lends its own personality to the garden, but as a whole, their growing requirements are pretty much the same. This herbaceous perennial is hardy and forgiving, perfect for the grower who has had it up to here with the weedy vacant lot next door. While later we'll provide "best practices" for growing bee balm from seed, in a pinch you can toss some pre-soaked seeds over the fence in early spring. By mid-summer, your neighbors' "new" landscaping will block out that unsightly, rusted-out transmission or the broken satellite dish that became obsolete in 1986. (If you happen across an old kiddie pool, turn it into a water garden! And if you've never seen a toilet planter, you've never lived...in Arkansas.)
We'll list any specific requirements and characteristics as we explore each variety, but most are the same:
- Classification: Herbaceous perennial.
- Foliage: Medium-green, oblong, lightly serrated; the leaves form in intermittent, opposite pairs along the square stems characteristic of the Lamiaceae, a.k.a. the mint overlords.
- Growth Habit: Bee balm grows upright from a clumping base.
- Fragrance: When crushed, the leaves and flowers emit an orangey-minty aroma.
- Water Requirements: Drought-tolerant but prefers medium moisture in well-drained soil.
- Sunlight: Full sun; late afternoon shade is welcomed in the hottest climates.
- Soil Quality: A wide variety of soils, from sandy to clay; we recommend a compost-amended site free of weeds (and abandoned car parts) for best results.
- pH: 6.0 to 6.7, preferring a more acidic soil.
- Maintenance: Deadheading will prolong the bloom period. Clean up frost-killed debris in fall and trim the plant down to 2" above soil level. Divide plants in early spring every 2 to 3 years.
- Fertilization: Once established, you can apply a general-purpose fertilizer every couple years, but unless you have lousy soil, you can skip it.
- Pests: Bee balm isn't notably susceptible to pests. It's deer resistant, and when used as a foundation planting, it may discourage rodents from breaking and entering homes and outbuildings.
- Diseases: Crowded plants that lack proper air circulation are susceptible to powdery mildew. The denser M. didyma varieties are more vulnerable.
Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata)
This variety is a departure from the frillier bee balm types. What look like petals at first glance are, actually, bracts, which actually modified leaves. While they're usually positioned below the actual flowers, they tend to overwhelm them in size and color.
Take a closer look. The true flowers grow from the axis of the bract—the crook between the leaf structure and the stem—and in the case of spotted bee balm, the blooms are tiny and orchid-like, spotted with little dots. Two or more clusters (or whorls) adorn the top third of each Monarda punctata stem. and the bracts can be green, lavender or magenta, and the blooms can be white, pink, or yellow. The dots are usually magenta, purple, or black.
Spotted bee balm is perhaps the most exotic-looking Monarda relative. It's also known as dotted bee balm, horsemint, and spotted horsemint.
Monarda punctata is native to eastern North America, but you can grow it most anywhere. Here's a look at the specs:
- Fraggle Counterpart: Mokey
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-8
- Height: 1.5' to 2'
- Width: 7" to 12"
- Bloom Period: June through September
Wild Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)
Also called wild bergamot, this is the most-recognized and the most-cultivated variety. The bracts on M. fistulosa are more delicate than those belonging to spotted bee balm, and its flowers have long, tubular, lavender petals. The flowers are broader (up to three inches across) on wild bee balm than they are on the spotted variety and grow at the tips of the plant's long stems.
- Fraggle Counterpart: Gobo
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-9
- Height: 2' to 4'
- Width: 2' to 3'
- Bloom Period: July through mid-September
Monarda fistulosa's native range includes Mexico, Canada, and the continental United States, and it can be found in pastures, prairies, ditches, woodlands, and along roadsides. Chances are, it will find a comfortable spot in your own garden.
Panorama Bee Balm Mix: Monarda Didyma Variety Pack
Do you want a vibrant riot of scarlet, burgundy, lilac, and lavender, with a contrasting touch of white? Our Panorama Mix is a bestseller around here. Collected from several different color variations of Monarda didyma (commonly known as "scarlet bee balm"), these bee balm seeds grow into plants that closely resemble wild bee balm in shape and size, though they may be a bit denser in foliage.
Monarda didyma plants are slightly more susceptible to drought, and if they're not given enough air circulation, powdery mildew can be a problem. But hey, look! All those pretty flowers!
- Fraggle Counterparts: Red, Uncle Traveling Matt, Boober, Gobo
- USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-9
- Height: 2' to 4'
- Width: 2' to 3'
- Bloom Period: June through early-September
Growing Bee Balm from Seed
Now that we've introduced you to the different types of bee balm, and helped you choose the right spot, you probably want the dirt on growing bee balm from seed. While we did hint that you could toss your seeds into the garden and end up with a few vigorous and spectacular plants, you'll get the most mileage with these cultivation tips:
Site Preparation: For the healthiest, showiest bee balm plants, amend your soil with aged compost and make sure your pH meets the plant's requirements. Moisten and smooth the soil prior to planting.
We typically recommend starting surface-sown seeds indoors to make sure they're properly and safely watered until your seedlings emerge and get a head start.
When to Plant: Direct-sow or transplant when the soil temperatures average 70°F and all danger of frost has passed. Start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior.
Planting Depth: Surface-sow seeds on fine, smooth soil, in peat pots, or nursery trays. Bee balm seeds need sunlight to germinate.
Plant Spacing: Make sure your plants have breathing room to defend against mildew. We recommend a 2' spacing.
Germination Period: 14 to 28 days. We recommend planting 2 to 3 fresh seeds per planting location. Cold stratification isn't necessary but we recommended it.
Harvesting: Bee balm makes a great cut flower, and the fragrant flower heads are popular potpourri and sachet ingredients. You can pluck leaves as you need them, or dry entire inverted stems in a warm, dry room with plenty of air circulation.
Sourcing your Bee Balm Seeds
Sometimes, seeds can be a bit fussy about germinating. Even if you do double-up (or triple-up) your plantings, it's important to use the freshest seeds possible. And, in the case with the more exotic colors and combo packs, you'll want to order them early!
Seed Needs is proud to offer the highest-quality seeds available, and we're always researching and updating our growing advice to help you get the most out of your gardening experience.We welcome your feedback, and if you've got growing tips you'd like to share, please contact us!