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  • Writer's pictureKat Cervoni

Plant Profile: Monarda

Updated: May 1, 2020

Monarda, Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, Gold Melissa, Oswego Tea, Horsemint. So many monikers for this beautiful and powerful flowering perennial.

I try not to play favorites, but I can't help it with this one. She feeds bees and hummingbirds, heals humans, blows the garden up with long-lasting color, and has a strong and hardy disposition. We LOVE planting her.

DID YOU KNOW?: Monarda is in the Mint family Lamiaceae and has several species native to the US.

Monarda in History

Monarda didyma influenced American history. When the Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty took a stand against England on the night of December 16, 1773, and threw 342 chests of tea overboard, the colonists took a stand along with them by boycotting their beloved Earl Grey.  Earl Grey is a bergamot flavored black tea (the bergamot, in this case, is from Citrus bergamia, an Italian citrus fruit called Bergamot orange). Monarda didyma  has a very similar flavor to bergamot orange and was used by the colonists in place of English tea after the Boston Tea Party, helping to boost morale to overthrow English rule. I love that this plant was an ally in protest and rebellion.

Monarda as Medicine

Monarda is one of those plants on many herbalists' top ten lists and it has a list of medicinal properties so long that will make your eyes cross. The medicinal properties were discovered by the Native Americans, with different tribes contributing distinct uses of the plant. As a tea, it can be used to soothe cold symptoms (a sore throat, headache, respiratory issues) and eases stomach issues like gas and nausea. And during these anxious times, you might like to know that it is also a relaxing nervine- drink a cup to calm nerves and aid sleep. Since the whole plant is edible, I love to put the petals in a salad to add color and health. Even if you do not use it, having medicinal plants in your garden is something of value (IMO!).

Gardening Tips

Monarda’s main downfall is powdery mildew. Notorious. Personally, I see it as part of Monarda's identity and it's just part of her deal (I get if you think that's crazy). First off, there are many cultivars that have successfully been developed to be highly resistant to the fungal disease. We use these in our planting installations. To be preventative, stems can be thinned each spring to assure good air circulation and watering done just to the roots (big bonus to drip irrigation systems). The plant can be sprayed weekly with an eco-spray consisting of half a teaspoon each of baking soda, Dawn dishwashing soap and Neem oil added to one quart of water. If it does take over in late summer, cut the browned-out foliage to the ground or halfway back after the disease attacks. The regrowth won't become reinfected for the rest of the season. The good news is the mildew does not affect overall health just appearance and next spring the plant reappears like nothing happened. 

plant, monarda, bee balm, mildew
Powdery mildew on Monarda foliage. Photo via The Obsessive Neurotic Gardener blog

Pollinator's Paradise

Bee Balm earns its name as being a magnet for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Bees see plants in UV light. The below photo beautifully captures how Monarda citriodora looks to a bee's eyes. Pretty amazing. Oh, and the birds love the seed pods. But guess who doesn't like it- deer! All in all, a real winner of a plant. Looking forward to seeing her again this summer! 

Monarda as seen by a bee (UV light). Photo credit: Craig Burrows

Written by Annemarie Gero

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