The genus Monarda brings wonderful gifts to the garden. Through trial and error, though, I’ve come to realize that getting the most out of Monarda species takes a certain amount of thought.
In our garden we have four types of Monarda: the Bee Balm variety ‘Raspberry Wine’ (Monarda didyma), the straight species Wild Bergamot (M. fustulosa), and the M. fistulosa variety ‘Purple Rooster’.
In the right location, Monardas offer abundant blooms over a long period. They are also highly attractive to pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Bee Balm thrives in rich, moist soil in full to part sun. Downy mildew can be a problem, but the variety ‘Raspberry Wine’ is highly resistant, at least in our area.
Actually, Bee Balm can thrive a little too much. With its height of up to 5′ and its spreading rhizomes it can squeeze out less aggressive plant species, including its own cousin Wild Bergamot.
Wild Bergamot also spreads by rhizomes and can grow over 4′ tall. However, it seems better adapted to dryer, leaner soils and is not quite as aggressive as Bee Balm.
Its flowers are also smaller, but I appreciate their lavender-blue color. Downy mildew has not been a problem with the Wild Bergamot in our garden, but that experience is not universal.
Both Bee Balm and Wild Bergamot respond well to cutting back in late May.
‘Purple Rooster’ is a compact variety of Wild Bergamot, growing to about 3′ tall. If I could do the Front Garden over again, I would plant ‘Purple Rooster’ in the Sidewalk Border, where the mix of plants would benefit from more mid-size species.
Another compact Monarda option is Bradbury’s Monarda (M. bradburiana), which grows to 2′ or more and is fairly adaptable in terms of sun and moisture. Sadly, I didn’t know about this species when I planted the Sidewalk Border, or it might have a prominent place there today.
If I were starting over, ‘Raspberry Wine’ would be left to make itself at home in the Front Island Bed, which is where I put ‘Purple Rooster’. The Front Island Bed is full of other tall, aggressive plants like New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum).
There are some really short dwarf Bee Balm varieties that grow 12-18″ tall. I don’t like them, though. The flowers are too big and look out of proportion to the size of the plant.
Monarda species have a substantial presence in our mid-summer garden, which is a good thing. It can be useful, though, to have a strategy to keep Bee Balm (and Wild Bergamot, to a lesser extent) from overwhelming its neighbors.