Outdoor Living

Bring butterflies and hummingbirds home with a single plant

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The humble scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) has a lot to recommend it, especially in eastern North America, where it originated. This easy-care perennial not only attracts bees to your garden, but butterflies and hummingbirds also find it irresistible. It’s a welcome addition to a perennial garden, a naturalistic garden or an herb garden. If that’s not enough, its fragrant leaves have long been used for tea, and its flowers can be added to a bouquet or brought into the kitchen to use in everything from salad to dessert.

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Jacob Cline’ beebalm

Botanical name: Monarda didyma

Common names: Scarlet beebalm, Oswego tea, red bergamot, bee balm

Origin: Native to eastern North America

Where will it grow: Hardy to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and Celsius (USDA zones 3 to 9; find your zone)

Water requirement: Regular to ample water; can handle some drought when mature

Light requirement: Full sun; afternoon shade in the hottest summer climates

Mature size: 1 foot to 8 feet tall and 2 feet wide

Benefits and tolerances: Flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds; fragrant leaves and edible flowers that make good bouquets; deer resistant

Seasonal interest: Summer flowers; possible repeat bloom in fall

When to plant: Sow seeds or set out plants in early spring.

Distinguishing traits. Clumps of leaves 2 to 4 feet tall are topped by showy clusters of flower-bedecked stems. The 3-inch-long tubular flowers have a somewhat shaggy appearance in shades of pink, red, white, blue and lavender. The fragrant leaves are dark green.

The leaves are said to impart a flavor similar to that of the sour orange citrus, also known as bergamot when used for tea, giving this plant one of its common names.

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Beebalm and clematis (Clematis sp.)

How to use it. Plant scarlet beebalm where you can enjoy the bees, hummingbirds and butterflies that its flowers will attract. It’s especially effective when massed with other perennials, such as black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), in borders, native gardens and natural-style gardens.

More ways to use scarlet beebalm:

  • It makes a wonderful addition to herb gardens and sensory gardens.
  • The dark green leaves can be used in teas and as a mint substitute.
  • The edible flowers can be used in salads, preserves and baked goods; treat as garnishes on fish and in punch bowls. (The red ones are said to be the tastiest.)
  • Fresh flowers can also be added to bouquets, and dried petals and leaves can be used in potpourris.

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‘Raspberry Wine’ and ‘Jacob Cline’ beebalm

Planting notes.

  • Choose a spot in full sun with well-draining, amended soil. Thinly sow seeds about one-quarter inch apart or set out plants 1½ to 2 feet apart. Add a slow-release fertilizer when planting and fertilize lightly every spring in the following years. Pinch tips of new growth to encourage bushiness.
  • Keep the soil moist but not soggy throughout the growing season. Provide regular water, and increase it if the plant shows signs of wilt.
  • Deadhead regularly to encourage repeat blooms.
  • Beebalm may be subject to powdery mildew, so provide good air circulation. Popular hybrids that are more mildew-resistant include ‘Blue Stocking’, ‘Fireballs’, ‘Jacob Cline’, ‘Marshall’s Delight’, ‘Petite Delight’, ‘Raspberry Wine’ and ‘Violet Queen’.
  • Cut the plant down from an inch to several inches above the ground in fall.
  • Divide every three to four years in early spring. Discard the center of the plant.