The name "bee balm" may refer to any species in the genus Monarda. As the name suggests, their presence will summon bees to your garden, along with other nectar seekers, such as butterflies and hummingbirds. Monarda species and their many hybrid varieties come in a stunning range of colors. Bee balm, a member of the mint family, is edible, and tea made from its leaves is a good source of antioxidants.
The species Monarda didyma is a perennial best grown in zones 4 through 9. Commonly known as "Oswego tea" for the town in New York where the seeds were collected, it was a popular substitute in colonial New England shortly after the tax protest known to posterity as the Boston Tea Party. Its flavor mimics that of true bergamot, the citrus flavor that makes Earl Grey tea distinct. It grows to a height of 3 to 4 feet and blooms bright red, attracting sphinx moths and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Monarda fistulosa is often called "wild bergamot," though it should not be confused with true bergamot. It is a perennial that does best in zones 3 through 9. A less showy species, Monarda fistulosa blooms lavender-pink late in the summer.
Known commonly as "spotted horsemint," Monarda punctata was used in treating colds during the early days of European settlement in North America. It may be grown as an annual or as a short-lived perennial in any zone. It grows to 2 feet tall and blooms spectacularly in purple-spotted yellow flowers and tiers of pink bracts. Medicinally, the plant has the greatest concentration of thymol, the active ingredient in antiseptic mouthwashes and preparations, of any bee balm.
Monarda citriodora is an annual species known as lemon bee balm due to its citrus scent. It grows to between 2.5 and 3 feet tall, a good height for planting in borders. Hummingbirds flock to its pale lavender flowers. Plant it in zones 8 through 11.
The long-blooming Monarda pringlei retains its green foliage all year long in zones 7 to 11. It grows no higher than 18 inches tall. Named varieties of this dwarf bee balm include pink "Petite Wonder" and rose-pink "Petite Delight." Monarda pringlei is immune to powdery mildew.
Unfortunately, Monarda didyma is particularly susceptible to mildew. But many of the named hybrid varieties such as the bright pink "Marshall's Delight" and the "Gardenview Scarlet" are mildew resistant, and should be planted instead of M. didyma where conditions for mildew prevail. Other mildew-resistant varieties include the red "Jacob Kline," the lavender-blue "Violet Queen," the purplish "Colrain Red" and the "Raspberry Wine." These newer, named varieties tend to be hybrids of Monarda clinopodia, Monarda didyma and Monarda fistulosa, producing a group some botanists call Monarda media.