Monarda: Native Herbs with Beautiful Flowers

Lately I have noticed more hummingbirds in my garden. I’d like to say it is because of the Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ I planted but really, I have so many flowering plants it is hard to say. I purchased ‘Jacob Cline’ because a Mt. Cuba Center report said that out of all the Monarda plants in their trial, this one was visited the most by hummingbirds. Although hummingbirds love large-flowered, red cultivars of Monarda in general, they seem to prefer Jacob Cline because (researchers theorize) the plant is taller than the others, thus easier to find.

Purchasing Jacob Cline led me down the rabbit hole of adding several Monarda species to my Virginia garden.  A member of the mint family, Monarda is a native herbaceous plant with culinary and medicinal properties. There are 17 species and many cultivars of M. didyma and M. fistulosa. Usually, this plant prefers moist soil in full sun to partial shade. Most are perennials that spread by rhizomes and can be “assertive” if given optimal conditions. M. didyma is more thuggish than the others.

Monarda didyma

Of all the species, M. didyma is most favored by hummingbirds because of the red, tubular flowers that are arranged in a whorl within a singular inflorescence. This plant was used by Native Americans for culinary and medicinal qualities. In fact, its common name, bee balm, comes from the practice of rubbing the foliage on the skin to alleviate the pain of bee stings. The foliage also can be used to make tea, hence its other common name, Oswego tea. In the 18th century, John Bartram, Philadelphia’s famed botanist, collected the seed in Oswego, New York. The leaves can either flavor a black tea or used as a substitute for traditional English tea, hence its popularity after the Boston tea party. I like using the red flowers to add color to a fruit salad.

Monarda fistulosa

Last year, I planted M. fistulosa and it has thrived and multiplied. The inflorescence is similar to M. didyma but the tubular flowers are purple. My stand is about 3 feet tall. When it bloomed in early summer it provided a nice mass effect of purple color. This was not a hummingbird magnet, but butterflies liked it and the bees swarmed around the flowers. When the petals eventually fell off, the seed heads remained all summer long to the point that it looked like a different shrub altogether. M. fistulosa is called wild bergamot because its fragrance is similar to true bergamot (Citrus aurantium var. bergamia). Again, the leaves can be used to make tea or flavor a black tea plus the flowers are edible.

I planted M. punctata (dotted bee balm) for its unique flower structure. The flower heads, which are more of a bleached green color, are stacked on top of each other, reminding me of the Dr. Seuss children’s books. This species is supposed to be resistant to powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that creates a white/gray powdery coating on the foliage in summer and early fall. This does not kill the plants but makes them unsightly and of course it makes it impossible to harvest the leaves for tea.

Monarda punctata

A few months ago, I bought M. bradburiana (eastern bee balm) at a plant sale, simply because it was a monarda I had not heard of before. It is supposed to be compact, about 2 feet tall, with a slow spreading habit and powdery mildew resistant. The flowers are supposed to be purple but not stacked (I must wait until next year for mine to flower). When I mentioned this to a friend, she said it was an excellent plant and did not know why it was not used more often in gardens.

On my wish list is Monarda citriodora (lemon bergamot). This is an annual (the others in this article are perennials) with unique, stacked, purple flower heads – very stunning. This too is supposed to be resistant to powdery mildew. I have read that the scent is not really lemon but more like camphor. The leaves can be used to make a tea and the flower heads can be used for dried floral arrangements. I have not seen the plant for sale in my local nurseries, but I did see the plants in full show at Longwood Gardens this summer. I have already put this one on my seed list for next year.

Of course, there are many cultivars of M. didyma at the nurseries, including compact types now. I did see ‘Purple Rooster’ for sale, but I prefer red-flowered M. didyma instead of the purple or raspberry colored choices. Still, if you want a deal, you may find monarda plants for sale now in the fall as many garden centers need to sell their inventory of perennials. These are great natives for the garden plus you can use them in the kitchen and even in flower arrangements!

Monarda citriodora

6 responses to “Monarda: Native Herbs with Beautiful Flowers

  1. Love it!

  2. Elizabeth C. Reece

    Thank you for your excellent articles. My neighbor gave me Rose of Sharon which is going wild, but I love it and think Monarda would go well with it. I suppose I just cut back the rose of Sharon or dig it up and give it away. If I don’t plant every inch it plants itself.

  3. Elizabeth C. Reece

    Thank you. I think I saw a Rose of Sharon hedge today.

  4. I love to pick and dry monarda punctata (I think) at my in-laws’ ranch in Ramah, NM. I use it in place of oregano, particularly in chicken stock. Very fragrant and tasty.

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