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Colorful Plants That Make Pollinators Happy: Bee Balm (Monarda)

Jule Romans the author of "Shakespeare Love Quotes" and other books. She enjoys gardening with native wildflowers.

The scientific name for bee balm is monarda. Monarda refers to the entire large group of bee balm plants. The native plants have noticeable differences in foliage, flowers, and growing preferences. Monarda is also sometimes called bergamot. Whether a true native plant or a garden center cultivar, bee balm is a garden favorite.

Bee balm is a perennial that will thrive with very little water. It’s a great addition to the garden because, like many other native flowering plants, it does not need fertilizer or plant food in order to bloom and thrive. Monarda is also great for butterflies, hummingbirds, and local ecosystems.

Native Bee Balm Plants

Nearly all monarda seeds are easy, reliable, and rewarding to grow.

We can use the terms bee balm and monarda interchangeably when we are talking about the general type of plant. However, as we become more aware of native plants, we will want to dig a little deeper into scientific (botanical) names.

There are several different types of native bee balm plants. Three types that are most popular for gardeners are:

  • Monarda fistulosa
  • Monarda didyma
  • Monarda citriodora

These three are the more popular varieties, probably because they are very easy to grow.

Bee balm plants look beautiful and smell wonderful.

Bee balm plants look beautiful and smell wonderful.

Bee Balm Is a Beneficial Plant

One of the outstanding characteristics of bee balm is how attractive it is for butterflies and hummingbirds. Bee balm flowers are favorites of butterflies, both because of their fragrance and their structure. Butterflies find it easiest to land on flowers that have some flat spots. It offers both landing places and rich sources of nectar.

Hummingbirds enjoy the plant's beneficial qualities, but they are drawn mainly to the red varieties of bee balm. Since hummingbirds rarely land to feed, they are not quite as dependent upon the plant's structure. They do appreciate the sugary nectar. In my garden, bumblebees also seem to be drawn to monarda.

Any bee balm plant in any shade of red will attract hummingbirds to the home garden, as they love the color red. Just be sure to choose a bright, sunny spot that has a little shelter from the wind.

Native Bee Balm Grows Well From Seed

If you want to be sure you are growing native plants, it really helps to select bee balm seeds based on their botanical names. There are other cultivars that are not considered native, even though their common names sound very similar.

Focusing on growing from seed makes it easy to be sure that you are planting native flowers that will truly help pollinators such as butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Butterflies love all bee balm plants, but the native varieties offer the best benefits for insects.

It is best to grow most wildflowers from seed. The bee balm plant is no exception. This is because most native wildflowers that we use in the garden originated on the tallgrass prairies. When planted early enough in the season, a bee balm plant can bloom in its first year.

When buying seeds, look for these three species of plants:

  • Monarda fistulosa
  • Monarda didyma
  • Monarda citriodora

These varieties of bee balm are native plants that grew wild throughout North America before settlers came.

Non-Native Bee Balm Cultivars

There is a difference between native plants and common cultivars that are sold in garden centers. It's better not to choose these bee balm cultivars if you want to have the biggest impact on the environment in your garden.

Monarda Didyma "Jacob Cline" and Monarda "Panorama" are two examples of non-native bee balm cultivars. These are often sold as whole, mature plants.

Growing Tips for All Types of Bee Balm

Bee balm plants all tend to develop strong, deep roots. Transplanting Monarda fistulosa must be done with care, however. Bee balm plants do best when they can establish themselves right in place as small seedlings. It is easy to sow them directly in the soil or start them in very small pots outside.

Planting Out Bee Balm

As long as Monarda didyma and other plants are placed in their permanent place before they have more than six true leaves, there will be no problem with root disturbance. Just "plunk" them in the ground, give them plenty of water to start out, and they will thrive almost immediately. That is one of the greatest things about native flowers—they just seem to do well anywhere there is good sun exposure. Monarda citriodora is extremely hardy.

Transplanting Bee Balm

Larger plants can be transplanted without complications, as long as the roots are given plenty of TLC in the process. Treat them gently, and be sure to leave plenty of the original soil to help them establish in their new home.

Keeping Bee Balm Plants Healthy

If your bee balm plants do happen to have some problems, there are some quick fixes that can help. Be sure the soil is not too rich, or too thin. If it drains too quickly, add some organic matter in the form of compost or well-aged manure. Do NOT fertilize bee balm plants. Soil that is too rich will make the stems droopy and weak. It may also inhibit blooms.

Wild Bergamot Bee Balm, Monarda Fistulosa

Wild Bergamot Bee Balm, Monarda Fistulosa

Wild Bergamot Bee Balm: Monarda Fistulosa

These pretty, light purple bee balm flowers will look great anywhere! Keep in mind that wild bergamot bee balm will grow very tall, so place it at the back of the garden bed. Also, give it plenty of room to spread.

Native and Non-Native Bee Balm

Some other versions of non-native bee balm have had their colors manipulated to give white or even deep purple blossoms. When the plant is only called "bee balm," it becomes very difficult to explain the differences in appearance. This is why using the name Monarda fistulosa will be helpful.

The part that confuses most people is that one bee balm plant can have densely packed bright pink petals and another can have delicately sparse lavender petals. It all depends upon the species.

Monarda fistulosa may lean toward a slightly more pink appearance, but its blossoms and shape will remain the same. Plus, you can be assured that Monarda fistulosa is a true native plant. Plants called simply "bee balm" may not be native, and may not reproduce well by seed.

Garden Experience

My experience with Monarda fistulosa has been very positive. I find that it thrives without any additional watering. Bee balm begins to bloom in late June and will keep right on for as long as I choose to clip the spent blossoms. I usually don't deadhead my Monarda fistulosa, because I like to collect the seeds.

Scarlet Bee Balm, Monarda Didyma

Scarlet Bee Balm, Monarda Didyma

Scarlet Bee Balm: Monarda Didyma Cultivars

The bee balm plant known as Monarda didyma has many cultivars. The red cultivar is very popular indeed. It bears the same coloring as the native variety. The cultivated plants grow a bit shorter and are more compact than native scarlet bee balm. It may have darker foliage or a longer bloom time as well.

Colorful Variations of Red Bee Balm

One of the outstanding characteristics of Monarda didyma is its stunning variety of subtle color variations. While many of these happen naturally, some have been enhanced in botanical experiments. The scarlet and coral varieties have been cultivated in some cases to achieve particular shades of petals and leaves.

Still, even if not a true native prairie flower, these types of Monarda are quite useful and helpful to the environment. Choose Monarda over other standard garden flowers. Bee balm native plants have the added benefit of helping the environment while enhancing the beauty of a home's yard and garden.

What Are Bee Balm Cultivars?

It is important to remember that while all native flowers are identified by two Latin names, that is not a guarantee that that particular bee balm flower is native. It is simply a good guide.

One way to tell whether or not the bee balm you are planting is a true native is to examine the scientific names.

Scientific Versus Cultivar Names for Bee Balm

Native flowers will generally be identified by only two Latin names. The first name is for the genus and the second one is for the species. For example, in Monarda fistulosa, Monarda is the genus and fistulosa is the species. It’s interesting that the first name is capitalized, but the second one is not.

If the plant has been specially bred by a botanist or horticulture lab, it will have a third name (or names) added. The added name will be placed in quotation marks. Also, frequently, you may notice that both names will be capitalized. This is an indication that the label is not using the scientific (or botanical) name of the plant. Sometimes, the name in quotation marks will simply be appended to the first Latin name, leaving off the species name.

Cultivar Names for Bee Balm

The key is to look for the name variations that are placed in quotes. For example, a plant named Monarda "Jacob Cline” is a clue that this plant is a non-native cultivar. As another example, Monarda didyma "Panorama Mix" shows that the plant is an altered version of the wild native plant. These additional names added in quotes show gardeners that the plant has been created or altered, and may even be patented.

When a plant is specially bred in a horticulture lab, it will have different characteristics than the original native prairie flowers. This is not always a bad thing. However, it can make things a bit confusing for gardeners who want to stick to planting native flowers.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Bee Balm, Just Plant It and Enjoy It

It is understandable to find this name confusion all a bit frustrating. Don't become too concerned with all the naming and terminology at first. Just try to learn a bit at a time. There are several great resources to help figure things out as time passes. The USDA Plants database offers a wide range of information about how to grow native Monarda in the garden.

Bee balm plants are very rewarding and fun to grow. That is the most important thing. Just stick to that and follow the advice that makes sense for the specific needs of the individual garden. The rest will happen naturally.

The most important thing is to plant flowers that bring beauty and pleasure. That's what growing native flowers is all about: enjoying the natural beauty in your gardens

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jule Romans