Meet the Monardas

Beebalm (M. didyma) in the garden

Many gardeners are already familiar with beebalm (also commonly called Oswego Tea). There are a variety of cultivars and hybrids available at most garden centers with enticing names – such as ‘Coral Reef’ or ‘Raspberry Wine’.   Gardeners have been using beebalm in their gardens for years – it is a great choice for attracting hummingbirds and other pollinators and is a beautiful splash of summer color.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird sipping from M. didyma.

The monardas are also a favorite of the clearwing hummingbird moth.

The Monardas can spread quite rapidly, so many people use them in more natural, meadow-type gardens – and still end up dividing the plants every few years to keep them in check.  While just about every book you read says beebalm grows 3-4 ft high – it is taller than me in my garden this summer – which means it reached 6 ft! Many of the cultivars stay smaller – but the straight species can really grow if it is happy. We just planted the display garden last summer over Memorial Day Weekend – and I put the Culver’s Root behind the beebalm – but now you can’t see the Culver’s root over the beebalm – so I will have to do some rearranging next spring I think.

This is part of one of our display gardens at Fiddlehead Creek Native Plant Nursery. What a difference just one year makes!

The group of plants in the Monarda genus are often just called beebalm as a whole – even though there are many distinct species. And many gardeners don’t realize that we have a number of different native monardas in our area – in fact monarda is a North American genus of over a dozen species.

Since there are so many cultivars of different colors of Beebalm available at many retail centers, I have found many visitors to the nursery just saying that they would like the ‘lavender one’ or the ‘red one’ – not realizing that they are in fact different species.  At many garden centers, they may in fact just be different cultivars of the same plant, but at our nursery – the ‘red one’ and the ‘lavendar one’ are in fact two entirely different species – Beebalm (Monarda didyma) and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  While both are considered native to NY according to the NY Plant Atlas  – we have stands of lavender Wild Bergamot blooming in the fields around us right now – but I must say I can’t ever remember seeing the red Beebalm in bloom in nature.  I guess it must be out there somewhere…

Besides the more well known Beebalm and Wild Bergamot, we have some other great monardas for gardens in NY as well.  Monarda media, Purple beebalm, is another nice choice.  It is very similar to Monarda fistulosa in color.  One that looks quite different is Monarda punctata, called Spotted Beebalm or Spotted Horsemint.  While the flowers are smaller, the bracts around the flowers take on color, creating a unique effect I think.  It stays shorter than its relatives – so it works well planted in front of the taller beebalm and bergamot. It can also take a drier, poorer soil than its taller siblings. We just started growing this one at the nursery this year – and I am definitely a fan!

M. punctata, Spotted beebalm

The flowers of Spotted Beebalm

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Comments

  1. James C. Trager says

    Hi Emily — After an auspicious start during our early spring, our M. didyma simply shrivelled in the St. Louis heat of late spring/ early summer. I think it would prefer a more shaded environment in warmer climates. What do you think?
    Also, any tips on mildew resistant varieties of this species?

    • says

      James – not sure about the heat – mine does fine out in the baking sun – but then I have it in a clay soil – and I am up in NY. You might be right that it might be happier with a bit more shade in your locale- I would definitely try that. Lets – ‘Jacob Cline’ is a cultivar of M. didyma that is supposed to have better resistance to mildew. We have that – and it does well. Still a bit of mildew – but not bad. It also helps to get in there and thin out the plants – so that you get increased airflow. M. fistulosa (Wild Bergamot) seems to be more resistant to mildew than M. didyma as well – so you might want to give it a try. It also does well in full sun – at least up here!
      Emily DeBolt recently posted..Comment on July Blooms by Nature in the Burbs

  2. says

    I love my monardas in the garden and meadow but only the meadow bergamot is blooming best…others are having problems because of our unusual drought…those in rain gardens are doing a tad better…bring on the monardas!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Patience

  3. says

    Emily, thanks for sharing this great post about one of my favorite wildlife garden plants. In fact Bee Balm was the first butterfly / hummingbird plant in my garden close to 25 years ago … shared by a friend. I was instantly hooked when EVERYTHING came to it … so many pollinators. Truly a great plant to include in gardens and meadows. Thanks!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012

  4. says

    Hello, Emily! Thanks for this article! Can you comment on the flower that blooms out of the flower on some of the monardas (as shown in your photograph of the Spotted beebalm variety)? And, why some individual flowers do the double bloom and some do not?

    • says

      Tami

      the flowers blooming out of the flowers on the spotted beebalm is actually just the flower – they are tubular in shape and bloom in whorls. the other ‘flowers’ that it is blooming out of actually aren’t flowers at all – but are just bracts. bracts are modified or specialized leaves. in this case – they are white/pink – and look like flowers – but they are actually just leaves. As to your second question – I don’t have an answer – other than to say that the happier they get – the more they bloom I think. Most of mine have multiple blooms per stem. maybe someone else has a better answer?

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