Gardening Tips from All Over

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

| August/September 1998

Bees and Balms

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia--Because all the bee balms are in bloom now, I carry my ancient 6-inch wooden ruler around to measure their flowers. I’ve noticed that those with the shortest tubes attract bees while those with longer ones attract hummingbirds, and I’d like to know which types to recommend to customers who want hummingbirds in their gardens.

Once you watch the bees and hummingbirds at work, you’ll see why it’s important to know the flower’s length from base to opening. Those bee balms with inch-long florets are ideal for bees, which can easily reach the nectar at the flower’s base. A slightly longer tube may effectively bar bees from entering the flower but is the ideal design for hummingbirds’ long beaks.

According to my admittedly unscientific observations, the best hummingbird bee balm by far is the red Monarda didyma, whose shaggy flowers have the longest tube of any of my bee balms. Bees flock to the short-tubed mauve wild bergamot, M. fistulosa. Hybrid forms have flowers of varying lengths; pinks are shorter, purples longer.

Whether they attract bees or hummingbirds, I love all the bee balms. During this season, I revel in their flowers, tinted bracts, and wonderful scents, from warm and spicy to cool and minty. If I’m not measuring their flowers, I’m trying to figure out how many colors I have. The sin of possessiveness is strong when it comes to shades of bee balm. How else can I explain why I pick and carry blossoms from one planting to another and compare colors?

Bee balm watching in late summer is a mixed blessing, and I feel a tug of war within my gardening soul. On the one hand, each day I see my colorful landscape. On the other hand, this fruitful scene before me soon will be transformed by cold rains and successive frosts. I know what I have to do, yet I feel almost powerless to do it: I must pick the flowers in their freshest hues for potpourri and dry the young leaves for flavoring and teas. Yet I’m so beguiled by their full-flowering, robust, mounding forms that day by day goes by—I measure, I count colors, but I don’t pick.

I’ve tried to resolve this problem by setting aside plantings just for harvest—bee balms are easy to divide—but as I’ve discovered over many years, each new planting becomes an important detail in the landscape. So how can one disturb it? That’s another dilemma for the gardener whose gardens satisfy the need for both beauty and useful plants.

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