I’ve found that herb gardeners are rarely solitary folks absorbed in pursuing perfect plants. When working in the garden, they often trail a friend or neighbor, sharing volumes of knowledge. They’ll pluck sprigs with abandon, encouraging visitors to “sniff this—taste that—please take this one home. My seeds came up so well this year, I’ve got extra!” Herbs bring on sociability.
It’s easy to imagine that favorite herbs mirror the qualities of favorite people. They’re the herbs that are easy to crow about to friends. They offer not only beloved flavors and fragrances, but almost human virtues: stalwart assertiveness, hidden vulnerabilities, astounding generosity. It’s natural for gardeners to surround themselves with botanical companions that reflect their individuality.
A steady, reliable friend
Both intuition and objectivity guide my choice of Monarda—known also as bee balm, Oswego tea, horsemint, or bergamot—as one of my best friends in the herb garden. I first met beautiful, wild Monarda didyma in the woodlands and meadows of North Carolina. These wild plants were far too robust for the small garden I had then, but they were unforgettable: lush scarlet blooms, tall stems, an earthy rootedness. Good looks, however, aren’t the herb’s only fine quality.
Monarda’s flavor and past use in healing stem from its membership in the Labiatae (formerly Lamiaceae) family—the same plant group that includes mints, lavender, rosemary, and many other plants with valuable aromatic, even pungent, essential oils. Monarda’s essential oils, concentrated primarily in the leaves and blooms, contain varying concentrations of thymol, a proven antioxidant with antibiotic properties; geraniol, a valuable perfume-industry component with a rose-geranium scent; and other oils. The fragrances of different species and cultivars may resemble lavender, lavender-eucalyptus, Greek oregano, thyme, lemon, or other combinations.
The class clown of plants
Shared laughter makes friendship a pleasure, and Monarda provides plenty of humor in the garden. As it emerges in early spring, perennial monarda seems to smile an early green grin from beneath last year’s debris. It grows quickly, and soon its strong, square stalks and opposing leaves wave a breezy hello from the back of the garden.
In summer, Monarda punks out with silly, spiky blooms. Emerging slowly from the round bud’s equator, the small, lipped florets form a colorful circlet with green or red-tinted bracts below and a pin-cushion-like center. As the florets mature, fade, and finally drop, the center increasingly resembles a balding pate. Some species sprout subsequent bloom stalks from the balding pate’s center, a sight that sometimes recalls Dr. Seuss.
Monarda attracts other garden friends, too, from morning until night. During early morning garden rounds, I sometimes see hummingbirds sipping sweet nectar from Monarda, despite the fact that hummingbirds are scarce in my Zone 5 Colorado plains garden. During the day, butterflies flit from one bloom to another along with bees and other pollinators. In the cool evenings, hawk moths, also called sphinx moths, buzz softly among the Monarda blossoms.
Assertive, but not aggressive
Monarda carries one more Labiatae characteristic: stolons. When I saw my second-year monarda increasing by this method, visions of long-past mint wars flashed before my eyes. Had I unwittingly doomed my herb garden to sneaky little Monardas forever sprouting from underground runners?
I quickly discovered that Monarda stolons lie close to the surface, and in my dry herb garden, they don’t travel far in any single season—perhaps 6 or 8 inches per year. I contain the Monarda patch with simple plastic lawn edging inserted about 4 inches deep. I also frequently dig out 4 by 4-inch sections to transplant or share with fellow herb gardeners. With this encouragement, Monarda respects its boundaries as does any good friend. If you give monarda prime conditions and ignore it, the herb can become invasive.
The co-dependent gardener
Some gardeners adore whiny, high-maintenance plants—cultivars that collapse without home-brewed fertilizer, grow monstrous without frequent pinching and pruning, or attract every pest imaginable. In my opinion, the surface beauty of these plants merely masks their demanding nature. I prefer instead such herbs as Monarda: healthy, self-sufficient, and able to endure the benign neglect that friendship sometimes requires.
Few pests bother Monarda—except powdery mildew. The herb is prone to this fungi’s attacks, especially when it is stressed. One exceptionally hot, humid summer, my Monarda grew furry with the grayish stuff, and the leaves curled and dropped. I cut the stalks to just above the ground, expecting the Monarda to die. The following spring, however, it bounced back green and healthy, and since then mildew has seldom bothered it.
I’ve recently learned that powdery mildew rarely hurts healthy Monardas. It doesn’t seem to spread to other herbs, and one bad year of powdery mildew won’t doom a whole patch. If the disease strikes—usually in late summer—promptly cut the infected stalks to the ground and discard them (but not to the compost pile!). This step opens the Monarda patch to better air circulation, slowing the mildew’s spread. Other gardeners surround Monarda with tall herbs to hide the mildewed stalks.
I’ve found home remedies to be ineffective against powdery mildew, and I prefer not to resort to chemical means of control; I just cut back the infected plants and live with it. You could use antifungal spray, but I believe such severe measures are unwarranted.
The most effective way to defend against powdery mildew is to choose resistant M. x media hybrids. Developed by professional plant breeders, cultivars such as ‘Marshall’s Delight’, ‘Raspberry Wine’, and ‘Violet Queen’ seldom, if ever, have problems with the disease. Each year new resistant cultivars arrive in garden centers, providing ever more choices.
A Monarda for you
Unless you garden in an area of extreme cold, prolonged heat and humidity, or nematode-infested soil, there’s a monarda waiting to befriend you. Monarda species are native to about two-thirds of North America—exluding only the western deserts and coasts, the northern and northwestern reaches of Canada, and tropical areas fraught with heat and high humidity, such as southern Florida, Hawaii, and parts of Texas. The genus includes reseeding annuals, such as lemon bee balm (M. citriodora, also called lemon mint), native to the South and Southwest, and pony bee balm (M. pectinata), which is native to Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, and Texas.
Most are perennials, however, occupying overlapping swaths of the East, Midwest, and lower eastern Canada. Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) prefers well-drained soil in a sunny location and tolerates drought. Bee balm (M. didyma), on the other hand, prefers shade and moist soil rich with organic matter. A third species, M. clinopodia (sometimes called basil bee balm), prefers a combination of sun and moist, well-drained soil.
Your herb garden might welcome M. fistulosa or M. didyma. But a third alternative, the hardy hybrid M. x media, settles happily into most gardens. It arose naturally in territories inhabited by M. fistulosa, M. didyma, and M. clinopodia. This varied genetic heritage gives M. x media cultivars great adaptability as well as an abundant variety of tastes and fragrances.
Professional horticulturalists work with M. x media to develop cultivars with specific characteristics. That’s why your garden center probably sells M. x media cultivars in a range of bloom colors, heights, and degrees of disease resistance. Read the plant labels carefully, because the cultivars may require different conditions for best growth. The cultivar ‘Blue Stocking’ makes my summer garden look cooler with its lavender-blue blooms; it combines well with tall yarrow (Achillea spp.) in white and soft yellow.
If you have a small garden or enjoy container gardening, look for M. x media ‘Petite Delight’. This dwarf hybrid grows only 12 to 15 inches tall and confines itself to a tidy mound that does not spread as rapidly as other monardas. Its mid-summer blooms are a cheery lavender-rose and its hardiness unquestionable—‘Petite Delight’ originated at the Morden Research Station in Manitoba, Canada.
To have a friend, be one
To grow a healthy Monarda patch in your herb garden, select a species or cultivar suitable to your conditions. For instance, my dry herb garden won’t support moisture-loving M. didyma, but M. fistulosa grows well; M. x media ‘Blue Stocking’ thrives. Check the plant label to determine plant spacing; I like to minimize that “new-garden” look by planting closer than recommended.
Prepare the soil at least 10 inches deep, using compost or other well-rotted organic material to establish a light but rich texture, and pop the little plants in place. Mulch around them to prevent weed competition and to even the soil’s moisture content and temperature. Don’t let your first-year Monardas dry out. You may fertilize the Monarda if you wish, but I don’t fertilize mine.
When the first blossoms fade, deadhead the herbs to encourage more blooming. If you keep at it, most Monardas will bloom for six weeks or more. If you enjoy the big, bald seed heads, as I do, let them mature. Sometimes young finches or wrens feed on the Monarda seeds and flee in a feathery explosion when you make your garden rounds. The seeds of perennial Monarda germinate poorly, so you need not worry about unruly sprouts.
Throughout the growing season, use Monarda’s leaves and then the blooms fresh or dried, in the kitchen or for potpourri crafts. Dry Monarda as you would any other herb: quickly, in the shade, and not so much that the herb becomes brown and crunchy.
At first frost, cut Monarda’s tall stalks to the ground. Give the herb a winter mulch—light or substantial, depending on winter’s severity in your area. Let your friend take a well-deserved rest. You’ll meet Monarda again in the spring.
Doree N. Pitkin writes and gardens at her home in Greeley, Colorado. She was editor of both The Big Book of Herbs, (Interweave, 2000) by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio, and Herbs in Pots, (Interweave, 1999) by Rob Proctor and David Macke.