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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs

Brilliant Bee Balms (page 2 of 3)

by Holly Shimizu

Know, Grow, and Landscape with Bee Balm

These members of the mint family form bushy, leafy clumps that grow 1-1/2- to 4-feet tall. The oval, dark green leaves have toothed edges, and have a strong scent of mint with overtones of other herbs, some rose-flavored, some lemony. Like all mints, stems are distinctly four-sided. In summer and fall, tight clusters of long, tubular, and nectar-rich flowers appear atop stems. Depending upon the variety, flowers are pink, white, blue, violet, purple, or scarlet.

Perennial clumps spread by underground rhizomes. They're not as invasive as mints, but can overwhelm a nearby lavender, for instance. Annual bee balms do not spread by rhizomes.

Bee balms are native to North America, from Vermont to Florida, and from Texas to British Columbia. Few plants make so little demand on the gardener. Annual bee balms do seem to prefer sandy, acidic soils and full sun, but perennial kinds thrive in a range of soils. Most grow best given full sun or partial shade, reasonably fertile and moist soil, and a compost mulch.

Propagate annuals from seed sown in place in late spring. Increase perennials either from seed sown in a cold frame in early spring, or (better) from division in fall or spring of established clusters. Set transplants about 10 inches apart. Plants tend to thin or die in the center as they grow outward, a habit that makes division necessary every three to four years.

Bee balms are not long-lived where winters are mild, or where summers are long and hot. Most kinds grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8. The one serious pest of Monarda didyma, mildew, is exacerbated wherever summers are hot and dry. The best bet is to plant mildew-resistant varieties (see following section), or any of the other species that are not susceptible.

Combine bee balms with other herbs, vegetables, and roses in borders, cutting gardens, containers, and naturalistic settings. They are handsome summer- and fall-bloomers, and clumps look good near water. Their flowers are long-lasting and striking in arrangements. Both leaves and flowers are used in potpourris and tussie-mussies (a bouquet of herbs).

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