795 Monarda didymaCommon Names: beebalm, Oswego tea, bergamot, scarlet beebalm Family: Lamiaceae (mint Family)
Beebalm is a spreading, clump-forming herbaceous perennial with the square stems and opposite leaves characteristic of herbs in the mint family. Leaves are toothed on the margins, ovate-acuminate (oval near the base and elongating to a pointed tip), 2-6 in (5-15 cm) long and about a third to a half as wide. Bruised foliage is fragrant. Beebalm dies to the ground in winter and comes back from its short underground stolons in spring to get 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m) tall and spread out 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m). Each flowering stem bears one or (rarely) two whorled clusters of scarlet red flowers. The flowers are about 1.5 in (3.8 cm) long and tubular, terminating in two lips. The upper lip is erect and like a hood and the lower lip has three spreading lobes. Directly beneath the flower cluster is a whorl of reddish bracts, some leafy and some bristly.
Monarda didyma is pretty enough, but numerous cultivars and hybrids with wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) are available. 'Bowman' has purple flowers and gets 4 ft (1.2 m) tall. 'Alba' has white flowers. 'Granite Pink' and 'Pink Delight' are dwarf, to 18 in (46 cm) tall, with pink flowers. 'Cambridge Scarlet' and 'Jacob Kline' both have brilliant crimson flowers to almost 2 in (5 cm) long, and the latter is mildew resistant. 'Gardenview Scarlet' also is mildew resistant. 'Mahogany' has reddish brown flowers. The Panorama Hybrids are seed propagated and have flowers in various shades of red, salmon and pink. 'Violet Queen' produces violet-purple flowers. 'Scorpio' has purple flowers and is said to be the most mildew resistant of all.
Beebalm, Monarda didyma, is native to the eastern U.S. from New York, west to Michigan and south in the Appalachian Mountains to Tennessee and northern Georgia. It occurs along wooded stream banks and in moist hardwood forests. A popular garden ornamental, beebalm has escaped cultivation and established in the northeast from New Jersey to New England and Quebec.
CultureBeebalm is very susceptible to powdery mildew. Overcrowding and stress from too little watering can bring on the disease. Spray with a foliar fungicide or (better yet) plant mildew resistant cultivars. Beebalm does best in soil that is rich in organic matter. Deadhead to prolong the blooming season. Light: Beebalm does well in full sun or partial shade. It may hang on in stronger shade but will not flower like plants that get plenty of sun. Moisture: Beebalm is not drought tolerant. It does best in soil that never completely dries out. Water during dry spells. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8. Propagation: Monarda can be started from seeds, but if you want to propagate the cultivars, start new plants by dividing the root clumps in late winter or early spring before new growth begins.
Attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, beebalm is a must-have in butterfly and naturalistic gardens. Most beebalm plantings can be expected to spread, so plant where this will not be a problem. In mixed perennial borders beebalm may require thinning every couple years to control its spread. The clumps tend to die out in the center and that's unsightly, so plan on dividing and replanting. Beebalm flowers over an extended period, and with vigilant deadheading, you can have flowers for eight weeks or more.
The name "Oswego tea" comes from the "Father of American botany", John Bartram (1699-1777), who discovered Indians and white settlers near Oswego, New York, making tea from the leaves of this American mint. The leaves are said to have a fragrance like that of the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) which is grown almost exclusively in southern Italy and used to flavor Earl Grey Tea.
Steve Christman 09/14/00; updated 05/23/03, 09/06/03, 1/16/04, 6/30/07