Easy to Grow, Native Flowers
The dense stand of monardas at the Yampa River garden in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, were bright red and in full bloom. I was casually admiring them when ZIP! something flew by. A hummingbird! I froze and watched it hover, probe the flower for nectar, then fly to a different flower and feed again. So wonderful.
Steamboat Springs is at an altitude of 7000’ in the Rocky Mountains with a growing season of 60-80 days. Plants that grow well there are going to be hardy through your winter.
Monarda is the scientific and common name of a group of American mints. All 15 species are North American. They have big colorful flowers and leaves with enticing fragrances. You might know them by their other common names: bee balm, bergamot, horsemint, and Oswego tea.
Scarlet Bee Balm
Most varieties available for gardens are forms of Monarda didyma, called bee balm, scarlet bee balm, red bergamot, and Oswego tea. Scarlet bee balm’s colors range from red and pink to purple to white. The foliage is dark green and grows two to four feet tall, reaching six feet under optimal conditions. There are also dwarf varieties. The flowers emerge at the top making a dramatic display. Scarlet bee balm will grow in both partial shade and full sun and likes moist but well-drained rich soils. Native from eastern Canada to Georgia and Tennessee, it is hardy in USDA Zones 3-8.
This is the famous Oswego tea. John Bartram collected it in 1743 near the village and fort of Oswego on Lake Ontario, naming it Oswego tea. His business, Bartam’s Gardens, was the most influential nursery in the colonies in the middle 1700s, so Oswego tea became widely planted. The plant was drunk as tea by Native Americans and then by colonists, especially during the colonial protests over the price of imported black tea. The tea was considered helpful for nausea, vomiting, and flatulence, but is not much used medically today. While this and the other mondardas are very mild medicine, they should be avoided during pregnancy.
Plant scarlet bee balms in flower beds to make a dramatic stand, line them along borders, or plant them in containers. They grow upright on strong stems, the clump spreading slowly. They make excellent cut flowers. And they dry to attractive dried flowers
You can find other species of monarda for sale. Species that are often available are Monarda citriodora, M. fistulosa, and M. punctata. The common names are often interchanged, causing confusion.
Monarda citriodora is called lemon mint, lemon bergamot, lemon bee balm, purple lemon mint, plains horsemint, and purple horsemint. It is native across the southern half of the United States and hardy in USDA zones 3-10. It grows 1-2 feet high. The flowers are pink to lavender and purple, with white or purple leafy bracts below them, adding color and interest. The leaves have a distinct light lemony fragrance. Lemon mint prefers full sun and moist soil, although established plants tolerate drought. The leaves are sometimes used as flavoring.
Monarda fistulosa is called beebalm and wild bergamot. It grows 30-34” tall, producing flowers from white to pink to lavender. It is found all across North America, hardy in USDA Zones 3-8. The flowers have a pleasant fragrance and beekeepers like it as a source of honey. The leaves smell minty. It has been used medicinally, for example to treat upset stomach, coughs, and headache; the list of Native American medicinal uses is very long.
Monarda punctata, spotted bee balm, dotted bee balm, spotted horsemint, is native to the eastern United States. It grows 24-36” tall, the leaves with a fragrance reminiscent of oregano. It blooms in tall spikes of flowers that can be white, yellow, pink, green, or purple with contrasting spots, usually purple, set off by showy leafy bracts that can be white, yellow, pink, or purple. The flowers are quite fragrant. It prefers full sun and moderate water. The aromatic leaves make a pleasant tea and have been used medicinally for digestive problems and fevers.
The plants are called bee balm because they can be used to treat bee stings by applying crushed leaves. Horsemint designates a native American mint that horses like. The name Oswego tea is explained above. Bergamot, which is applied especially to Monarda fistulosa, refers to the scent of the plant, which reminded settlers of the bergamot orange, a European favorite. The orange is the bergamot added to Earl Grey tea, not the monarda.
The name Monarda remembers Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish botanist and physician who studied American plants, especially medicinal plants, that were brought back to Europe by Spanish explorers. The species epithet citriodora means lemon-scented, didyma means “twin” referring to its paired stamens, fistulosa means “hollow, like a pipe”, referring to the tubular flowers, and punctata means “spotted.”
Planting Your Monarda
Choose a site with well-drained rich soil and hours of full sun. Transplant monarda plants into a hole about an inch larger than the pot. Add compost or fertilizer if your soil is poor, but monardas, being native, will thrive in unamended soils. Fill around the plant, making sure that what was the surface in the pot is level with the surface of the ground. Water thoroughly. Keep the plant moist throughout the first summer.
Monardas can be planted from seeds, in the fall or spring or indoors. Starting the seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost will allow planting hardy seedlings outdoors (after hardening—gradually exposing them to more and more hours outdoors—so they aren’t shocked by the change in conditions). Short-lived perennials, monardas will bloom in the first summer.
They need little care. Remove dead flowers to extend flowering. Extra water in summer will also extend monarda flowering.
As the plants grow, they can be divided to provide more plants. They are not considered invasive but they do spread. Control spreading by dividing the clumps every three years.
Bee balms resist deer and rabbit grazing; they’re not these animals’ first choice and the plants quickly regrow. In addition to hummingbirds, they attract butterflies and bees. As you might expect for native wildflowers, they are hosts to more than eleven native insects, including sphinx moths and a raspberry-colored pyralid moth. Monardas are susceptible to powdery mildew. Newer varieties are more mildew resistant; check that if your climate is moist.
Grow and enjoy monardas. Watch for them while hiking.
Written by Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist