MUSKOKA SUN — Bee balm is all about majesty – tall, stately, brilliant-red majesty. No one could possibly fail to notice and admire this eye-catching flower.
are among the flying creatures that flock to bee balm. Easy to grow and long-lived, with blooms that can last for weeks (so you don’t miss them if you’re away for a week), bee balm is a great choice for cottage gardens. Its native cousin, wild bergamot, is even hardier.
Every summer, I sit back and marvel at the impact a single clump of bee balm can have on the garden. It forms an unmistakable focal point, an anchor around which other flowers thrive, and best of all it attracts bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that swarm around their blooms in search of nectar.
A towering giant, regularly growing as much as five feet tall, bee balm (also called monarda) blooms early to mid-summer with striking red flower-heads that last for weeks. Blooms emerge from the tips of distinctive square stems (a characteristic of plants in the mint family) clustered with dark green leaves.
Bee balm grows quickly into a large, tall clump. Ironically, vigorous growth is behind the only problem most gardeners ever encounter with bee balm: mold. Whitish film covering the leaves tells you that the plant is too crowded and not getting enough air circulation. To prevent the onset of mold, divide clumps every few years and make sure not to spray the leaves when watering. Stress from dry conditions can also increase the chances of mold or other diseases, so ensure bee-balm is well-watered.
Other than dividing and watering, maintenance is nearly non-existent. Bee balm is far from sulky; as a plant native to the region, they are hardy and well adapted to local soil and climate conditions. In the wild they naturally grow in moist woods or meadows throughout northeastern North America, but in the garden they can be grown with success in average moisture conditions.
Bee balm is versatile in its light requirements as well, from partial shade to full sun, and in its pH tolerance.
You’ll keep your flowers blooming longer if you deadhead flowers when they’ve passed their prime. When the blooms inevitably start to fade in mid-summer, cut tall stems back to the base. More than likely the flowers won’t bloom again, but the clump of foliage will look more attractive than unkempt, gangly stems.
Despite their height, staking isn’t usually required. The only exceptions are new and un-established plants, or those in too much shade, which may be a little droopy.
For an attractive, natural looking display, plant bee balm with black-eyed Susan against a backdrop of large green shrubs or trees; their blooms will contrast nicely against the green foliage, focusing attention on the boldness and intricacy of the flowers. Other good companions include woodland sunflower and spotted horsemint (monarda punctata), combining to create a natural-looking woodland border-garden.
Propagation of bee balm is easy. Simply sprinkle seeds in pots or beds during the late fall or early spring, or divide an existing plants in early spring (a good idea, anyway, to improve air circulation and keep plants vigorous).
Bee Balm attracts bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. To encourage hummingbirds plant large clusters of bee balm, along with other hummingbird-friendly flowers of the same colour, together in the garden. Concentrating colour in this manner will make it easier for hummingbirds to identify a meal, much like neon signs attract us to fast-food restaurants.
Modern gardeners aren’t the only ones to appreciate bee-balm. The native Oswego people of western New York made tea from the dried aromatic leaves of bee balm, and as a result it is often called Oswego Tea. The natives shared their fondness for it with colonial settlers, who went on to use it as a substitute when imported tea became scarce after the Boston Tea Party and the onset of the American Revolution.
Oswego tea is refreshing, and reminiscent of Earl Grey. Steep 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of fresh or dried leaves in 250 ml (1 cup) of boiling water, then sweeten with sugar or honey to taste. For a nice summer cooler, serve ice Oswego tea with a slice of lemon.
Monarda fistulosa, or wild bergamot, is closely related to bee balm. A signature plant of meadows and the prairies, it’s even hardier than bee balm and can be grown in most soil types, from clay to sand, in moist to dry conditions, fertile to nutrient poor. Wild bergamot shares most characteristic with bee balm, though grows slightly shorter and blooms are less striking, lavender to light purple as opposed to bold red.
Bee balm makes a sturdy, colorful addition a garden, providing so much and yet asking so little.