How Does Your Garden Grow? Underrated bee balm a bright addition to any garden

Bee balm tends to be an underappreciated perennial.

It has never been perennial of the year or plant of the year, probably because of its tendency to spread aggressively (especially in shade), susceptibility to powdery mildew, and its sprawling, rather course-like clumping appearance. With its bright red or scarlet hairy mop of flowers at the end of tall, reed-like stems, however this wildflower has much to recommend it for problem areas of the garden.

Bee balm provides good color in the perennial garden and can be planted in full sun, full shade or partial shade. It is a long-blooming plant of at least three weeks between the months of July and September, depending on the cultivar, and the bloom period can be prolonged by deadheading the flowers. Newer cultivars are much more resistant to fungal infections like powdery mildew.

Bee balms also are very attractive to pollinators, hummingbirds, butterflies and have a strong odor similar to oregano. The name bee balm originates in the traditional practice of crushing the leaves of the plant and rubbing them on the skin in order to reduce the pain of bee stings. One of it common names is “Oswego Tea,” referring to the Oswego Indian practice of using the leaves to make tea.

Bee balms are low-maintenance plants that are deer-resistant, although the flowers ideally should be deadheaded after bloom to prevent self-seeding. This perennial should be divided every three to four years to control the spread of the plant, although you may want to do mass plantings of this wildflower as it can cover large spots in your garden with wonderful colors.

Bee balms are wildflowers originally and native to eastern North America. They are members of the mint family. The two most commonly planted species are Monarda didyma and Morarda fistulosa, with the former being the most popular as its many cultivars possess the brightest red colors. Both species are sometimes referred to interchangeably as bee balm or wild bergamot, among various common names. Monarda fistuloso is more drought-tolerant with lavender or pink flowers 2 to 4 feet tall.

In my garden, which is riven with tree roots and exposed to the sun only in the afternoon, I originally planted Monarda fistulosa under a crabapple tree. I later tried to remove the plants owing to annual bouts of powdery mildew, but they always came back within a year or two and flourished. I finally realized after many painful, expensive and failed experiments with other flowers that this plant is one of the hardiest and best-performing in my garden. I now plant Monarda didyma in different parts of the garden to maintain bright colors much of the summer into September. The newer varieties I planted do not experience powdery mildew. One variety of Monarda fistulosa that fights off powdery mildew well is Claire Grace, a stunning 4-foot plant with dark purple flowers that bloom in July.

The Monarda didyma cultivars I have had success with include Marshall’s Delight and Cherry Pops, both of which produce masses of red flowers. Two varieties that have received meritorious awards from the Royal Horticultural Society of London include Gardenview Scarlet and Beauty of Cobham, the latter of which is a bit smaller at 2 to 3 feet tall and has huge flowers of light purple/pink.

Companion plants that are often recommended include achillea, digitalis, agastache and echinacea. But any flowering plant will be a good companion, and in my garden I combine bee balm with butterfly weed, yarrow and stachys Hummelo or betony.

The most important decision in planting bee balm, however, is to allow enough space for the plants to grow for a few years before needing to be divided. For those areas of your garden that seem impervious to your favorite plantings, bee balm might be the solution you are seeking.

• The Master Gardener Help Desk, located in the Farm Bureau building at 1350 W. Prairie Drive in Sycamore, is open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. Gardeners with questions can walk in, email uiemg-dekalb@illinois.edu or call 815-758-8194.