Grow Monarda Varieties: Bee Balm, Bergamot, Oswego and Horsemeint

Versatility,easy care, lush, bright blooms—what more could an herb gardener ask for?

| June/July 2001

  • M. didyma ‘Cambridge Scarlet’.
  • Bee balm, or Monarda didyma, and other monardas lure herb gardeners as surely as they lure bees.
  • Bee balm, or Monarda didyma, and other monardas lure herb gardeners as surely as they lure bees.
  • Bee balm, or Monarda didyma, and other monardas lure herb gardeners as surely as they lure bees.
  • Bee balm, or Monarda didyma, and other monardas lure herb gardeners as surely as they lure bees.

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.

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