HARDINESS: Zones 4 to 9
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Slightly acidic
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Moist
PREFERRED LIGHT: Partial shade
ATTRIBUTES: Shaggy pink, purple, or red flowers; attracts hummingbirds; for beds
SEASON OF INTEREST: Early to midsummer
FAVORITES: 'Cambridge Scarlet', 'Marshall's Delight', 'Raspberry Wine'
QUIRKS: Wilts quickly when soil becomes dry
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Astilbe, columbine, cranesbill geranium, dusty miller, impatiens
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Partial shade, moist soil
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Powdery mildew; prevent by growing resistant varieties and thinning plants
RENEWING PLANTS: Plants live for 3 years; colonies persist longer; divide every 2-3 years
CRITTER RESISTANCE: Good
SOURCE: Division, cuttings, seeds
DIMENSIONS: 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m) tall, colonies grow 2 ft (0.6 m) or more wide
Bee Balm in the Landscape
If you have a damp spot in the yard, fill it with bee balm.Then, in early summer, feast your eyes on the amazing display of flowers produced by the showiest member of the mint family. This plant features shaggy blooms composed of many narrow, tubular flowers arrayed in 2-3 in (5.1-7.6 cm) wide topknots held on long stems. Colors include pink, lilac, and riveting reds that hummingbirds adore. The green leaves, sometimes tinged with red, give off a minty fragrance when crushed.
Bee balm thrives in moist soil, so it's a natural companion for astiibes. In hot-summer areas, it needs partial shade and can be paired with impatiens, coleus, or wishbone flower. In colder climates bee balm will grow in partial shade or sun provided the plants are well mulched in winter. In dry regions, they'll appreciate regular watering; consider planting them near an outdoor water faucet where they can benefit from spillage. Its slightly gangly posture and ragged-looking blossoms make bee balm ideal for naturalistic settings. Keep the plants far from high-traffic paths, however, because they attract bees in droves.
Better Bee Balms
Powdery mildew, a disfiguring fungal leaf disease, has long been a weakness of bee balm, but many cultivars offer good resistance to the white leaf spots that slowly destroy bee balm leaves and weaken the plants. At die first sign of trouble aim off and dispose of affected leaves. If the plant is badly infested, trim it to within a few inches of the ground and it will produce healthy new foliage.
To ward off mildew problems, buy resistant varieties. Good choices include 'Marshall's Delight', a vigorous producer of 2 in (5.1 cm) wide purplish pink blossoms on stiff 3 ft (1 m) stems, and 'Raspberry Wine', with purplish red flowers on 4 ft (1.2 m) stems. Among red bee balms, 'Jacob Kline' and 'Cambridge Scarlet' defend themselves well from mildew. These cultivars must be purchased and propagated by division or cuttings rather than being grown from seed.
Growing Bee Balm
Set out purchased plants in spring, in moisture-retentive soil, preferably in a spot convenient to water. Enrich the soil with compost or other organic matter but fertilize lightly, if at all. Apply a 3 in (7.6 cm) thick layer of organic mulch to conserve soil moisture. In the second year, pinch out a few stems in the middle of the clump to improve air circulation, which in turn discourages mildew.
Bee balm spreads by sending out shallow horizontal roots called stolons, which develop underground buds that grow into new plants. Bee balm can sometimes spread quickly, but you can usually restrain it and keep colonies healthy by thinning out old crowns so that the younger ones can flourish. Dig and divide established clumps every 2-3 years in early spring, refreshing the soil with compost or peat moss in the process.