When it comes to keeping backyard pollinators happy and abundant, consider adding plantings of Monarda, better known as bee balm. The plant’s inflorescence reminds me a medieval jester, where the calyx is the head and the flowers make up a multi-pointed hat and the flowerhead’s bracts resemble a ruffled collar. This perennial powerhouse provides hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, wasps, and bees nectar and pollen for a short period in the summer, generally late June to mid-July. After the seeds set, goldfinches, sparrows, and catbirds may feed on the tiny seeds. Where it excels in blossoms, it falls short in foliage.
Lauren Springer in her excellent gardening book The Undaunted Garden doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to bee balm. “The plant’s form and foliage are sub-par – it is a lax, invasive clump of straggly unbranched stems and often mildew infested leaves. Bee balm should be placed behind other plant so only the beautiful flowers can be seen.”
Planting Bee Balm
Monardas are known by various names including bee balm, Oswego tea, wild bergamot, or horsemint. They are short-lived perennials and grow in just about any plant zone. Plants can spread so give them some room to roam or be prepared to keep them in check. Not overly aggressive, but like many mints, these plants may spread and seem “invasive.”
The plants mostly prefer loamy, moist soils in full sun, although some like alkaline soils, and will tolerate some light shade in the afternoon, especially in hot climates. Using drip irrigation or soaker hoses may also help reduce or slow the appearance of powdery mildew. Though powdery mildew is a fungal infection and doesn’t affect the overall health of the plant, it can turn the foliage a brown discoloration or makes the leaves look raggedy. One treatment for the powdery mildew is to trim the stems half-way back or to the ground to allow the stems to resprout. The second growth is often less affected by powdery mildew, as well. This way gardeners can avoid using a fungicide.
Mondaras as Medicinal Plants and Teas
The genus Monarda is in honor of the “Physician of Seville,” Nicolás Monardes (1493-1588). He was a physician and botanist who advocated for the medicinal use of tobacco and wrote several books about the medicinal use of plants that were being discovered in the New World by sailors, traders, merchants, and explorers. Their information was obtained from the indigenous cultures who were being “discovered” during this period. Native American tribes used the plants to treat lung ailments and even to reduce the swelling of bee stings; hence, the common name bee balm. Teas were also brewed from the leaves and spotted bee-balm was used to ward off ghosts.
One of the first records of Monarda being grown in European gardens is from 1745. Englishman Peter Collinson obtained seeds from the Philadelphia botanist John Bartram who had collected the seeds of Monarda didyma near Oswego, New York thus the plant earned it's other common name – Oswego tea. The endlessly useful leaves, Monarda leaves became a substitute for English tea after the famed Boston Tea Party. Another species, M. fistulosa or wild bergamot was named for its fragrance resembling that of Citrus aurantium var. bergamia or true bergamot which is used to flavor Earl Grey tea.
All told, there are over 15 species of Monarda growing in North America. As members of the Mint family (Laminaceae), they share the characteristics of square stems, opposite leaves, and 2-lipped flowers bearing 2 stamens. Some are more widespread than others such as wild bergamot, spotted bee-balm and lemon bee-balm (M. citriodora) while scarlet bee-balm (M. didyma) and white bergamot (M. clinopodia) have more restricted ranges. Though some native plants are used in cultivated gardens, its more likely that gardeners used cultivars or hybrids of M. didyma or M. fistulosa which span a range of colors from white to red to purple.
Rainbow of Colors for Landscaping
Monarda didyma is native to the eastern US. Garden hybrids include ‘Adam’ with scarlet red flowers, ‘Violet Queen’ which has lavender-colored flowers, and ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ an older variety that is still grown with reddish flowers.
Monarda fistulosa or wild bergamot, grows from the Rocky Mountains to the east and bears rose to lavender-hued flowers. The foliage is mint scented and because the leaves may be added to sauces it is also known as the Oregano de la Sierra. This is a cold-hardy perennial.
The Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, has been growing and comparing varieties of Monarda for the last several years, testing out their endurance, appearance, and attraction to pollinators. Many of the current cultivars are breed for disease resistance and flower size. Of the 40 different plants they compared, the overall leader of the group was Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ for its strong growth, dark purple flowers, and resistance to powdery mildew. Their report Monarda for the Mid-Atlantic Region details the observations by staff and volunteers of this prized garden flower and its allure to pollinators. Just what the good doctor Monardes would have ordered for the garden.