Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs

Brilliant Bee Balms (page 3 of 3)

by Holly Shimizu

A Roundup of Bee Balms for the Garden

Of the dozen or so identified bee balm species, the following five and their varieties are the most useful for gardeners.

Lemon bee balm (M. citriodora). Annual, all zones; can be grown as a short-lived perennial in mild-winter regions (zones 8 to 11). As its name implies, this one — native to the southern and southwestern United States — is noted for its citrus scent. It is one of the shorter types (2 1/2 to 3 feet tall), which makes it perfect for borders. Bloom season is long, hummingbirds love the pale lavender flowers, and blooms make excellent arrangements.

'Lambada' is a striking new variety of M. citriodora from Holland. It produces large, multiple tufted whorls of lavender-rose tubular flowers that extend up the stem in fringed puffs of color.

Bee balm, bergamot, Oswego tea (M. didyma). Perennial; zones 4 through 9. This hardy plant, common in woodlands in the Northeast, is the dominant bee balm. The name Oswego tea comes from the English botanist Peter Collinson, who named the newly discovered plant in 1745 for the place where the seeds were collected, Oswego, New York. This plant became well known after the Shakers in northern New York recommended using the leaves for tea. Its brilliant crimson flowers atop 3- to 4-foot stems are excellent for attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds and sphinx moths (which behave much like hummingbirds).

Plants grow best if given partial shade and moist, organic-rich soil. But they are prone to mildew by summer's end. If your plants are prematurely afflicted, cut them back to the base no later than midsummer to encourage new leaf growth. A better tack is planting only newer, mildew-resistant varieties (see below).
  • 'Alba' and 'Snow White' — large white flowers
  • 'Blue Stocking' — violet flowers with a tube that gives nectar only to large bees with a long proboscis
  • 'Cambridge Scarlet' — bright red flowers
  • 'Croftway Pink' — clear pink flowers that are faintly scented
  • 'Gardenview Scarlet' — red flowers
  • 'Jacob Kline' — mildew-resistant with intense red flowers
  • 'Marshall's Delight' — pink and mildew-resistant
  • 'Violet Queen' — an early bloomer with lavender flowers

Generally the varieties with red flowers prefer more shade and moisture, while those with lavender or white flowers do best in sunnier, drier conditions. (Many of these named varieties of M. didyma are hybrids of M. clinopodia, M. didyma, and M. fistulosa. Some botanists refer to the entire group as M. media.)

Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa). Perennial; zones 3 through 9. Wild bergamot (no relation to true bergamot, a citrus) grows in dry, open woodlands and wood margins, primarily in eastern North America. It thrives in places that have cool summers, conditions typical in the heart of its native range from New England to Georgia. Compared with other bee balms, wild bergamot is less showy, stems are more noticeably four-sided, and leaves are a little hairier, more sweetly fragrant, and less toothed than those of M. didyma. Lavender-pink flowers come in late summer, the newest flower developing above the older ones. Height is 3 to 4 feet.

'Rose;', a new variety, is notable for smelling and tasting in all its parts like an old-fashioned rose. It's an ideal fragrance and flavor substitute for rose geranium where that plant isn't hardy.

The closely related M. f. menthifolia grows in western North America. When dried, it substitutes well for oregano.

M. pringlei. Annual or short-lived perennial; all zones. Though this stunning bee balm reaches only 18 inches tall, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds cover it throughout its long blooming season that begins in late spring or early summer and continues until frost. Its glossy, dark green mounds of foliage remain green during the winter in zones 7 to 11. This species does not get powdery mildew.

Spotted horsemint (M. punctata). Annual or short-lived perennial; all zones. This 2-foot plant is extraordinary in bloom, producing tiers of showy pink bracts, and dense whorls of purple-spotted yellow flowers. Bloom starts in early summer and lasts until frost. Start plants from seed sown in place in early spring. Plants tolerate dry soil (even prefer sandy soil), and rarely suffer from powdery mildew. Spotted horsemint contains the greatest concentration of thymol.

Holly Shimizu is the director of the U.S. National Arboretum and an herb specialist.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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