Monarda or “bee balm” as it is more commonly known, has a place in American history. Colonists drank it after they dumped the highly taxed English tea into the Boston Harbor.
Commonly called bee balm because of its attractivness to bees, Monarda is also attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.
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A member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, Monarda didyma is the species historically used for medicinal purposes. Monarda contains thymol, which is an antiseptic. Native Americans used poultices of the plant for skin infections and the treatment of minor wounds. It was also used to treat mouth and throat infections, such as gingivitis. Thymol is used today as a primary ingredient in commercially manufactured mouthwashes.
The genus contains both annual and perennial varieties, with the perennial varieties most often grown in home gardens. They produce flowers at the ends of the stems in colors ranging from crimson, to red, to pink and light purple.
Plant bee balm in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. They can stand a little afternoon shade but flower production will suffer if they don’t get enough sun. You can start them from seed by scattering it in the garden after soil temperatures have warmed to about 70 degrees.
Because it needs to be divided every 3 to 4 years, Monarda is most often propagated by root division. Divide the plants in early spring and replant at least 18 inches apart for the shorter varieties and 2 to 3 feet apart for varieties that grow up to three feet high.
Monarda often is susceptible to white powdery mildew, especially if they don’t have enough room to breathe. If plants begin to show signs of mildew, start by removing the affected lower leaves, as this will sometimes prevent it from spreading up the plant. A strong spray of water from the hose followed by a good spray with a mixture of 1 part milk to 2 parts water can stop powdery mildew from spreading. Milk changes the pH of the leaves and prevents the mildew from adhering to them. Be sure to spray the undersides of the leaves as well. This can also be used as a preventive measure if sprayed weekly from midsummer on.
After the flowers fade, cut the plants down to within a few inches of the ground and they may give you another round of blooms in late summer.