by Clint Calhoun
Monarda is a genus of flowering plants found in the Mint Family (Lamiaceae) that has long been appreciated not only for its attractive qualities, but also for its medicinal value. Like other members of the Mint Family, Monardas have square stems and fragrant oils that give them their “minty” smell. There are three different species that grow naturally in western Rutherford County and in scattered locations of the Upper Broad River Watershed. If you are looking for a great plant to add to your native plant gardening list, any one of these species, or all of them make great choices. So, let’s get to know these three species.
Moving from east to west geographically, the first one I want to focus on is Monarda fistulosa or wild bergamot. I first became acquainted with this plant several years ago on a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was growing in a sunny area at the Craggy Gardens picnic area. I later saw it growing on the roadside of Highway 64/74A near Pumpkin Center in some open meadow areas. It is possible that originally these were planted and escaped and have naturalized, but nevertheless there is a stable and breeding population, so it is entirely possible that it has always been there, but I have not seen it anywhere else in Rutherford County or the Upper Broad Watershed for that matter.
Monarda fistulosa is an attractive mint that looks similar to the more familiar Monarda didyma (which we will look at a little later), but its flowers are more variable in color, ranging from pinkish purple to pale lavender, even occasionally white. It spreads by rhizomes so you will usually find several plants together. Individuals grow from one to three feet tall. It generally likes full sun and blooms late spring through early summer. The leaves when crushed have a strong minty scent due to the presence of thymol, a chemical that is well-known for its antiseptic qualities and used commercially in antiseptics. Numerous Native American tribes used wild bergamot in teas and tinctures to treat mouth sores, ulcers, sore throat, stomach ailments and a host of other conditions. It was taken as a stimulant as well as used to induce sweating. In the wildflower garden, it is a very important plant for pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, but also hummingbirds.
Monarda punctatum, also known as spotted beebalm or spotted horsemint, is another attractive member of this genus. What makes it attractive is not the flowers themselves but rather the whorl of bright pink bracts that are found below the flower heads, which occur at each node. The flowers are yellowish in color and are covered with numerous spots, hence its species name punctatum which means dotted. Like most members of the genus, it spreads rhizomatously, and can be aggressive if it finds a happy place. Plant height can be between one and three feet. Like other Monardas, this species prefers sunny spots but can handle some shade, particularly in the afternoon. It is a preferred plant for many bees and wasps which are beneficial for reducing harmful insect populations. Like other members of the genus, spotted beebalm also has similar antiseptic properties, making it a preferred medicinal plant. The only place I’ve seen this growing in the entire watershed is on a bank in the Firefly Cove subdivision where it was likely planted as part of a seed mixture during development of that property. Not a bad choice to put in a seed mix. Spotted beebalm blooms in late summer.
Lastly, we have Monarda didyma whose common names are as numerous as the locations that it can be found. Most often called scarlet beebalm, it is also called Oswego tea, which was a name given by settlers who documented its use by the Oswego Indians. There are numerous accounts of various tribes, including the Blackfeet and Winnebago, using this plant for different things, mostly in ways that reflect its antiseptic qualities. Scarlet beebalm is a treasured wildflower garden species and is incredibly beneficial for the wide variety of pollinators that it supports. Bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds all are attracted to this beautiful plant. As I write this I am watching a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding on my beebalm. Like the others, scarlet beebalm easily spreads by rhizomes and in the right spot, it can quickly colonize areas of the wildflower garden. Its most striking feature are its bright red flowers that grow in terminal heads, but it also has bracts below the flowering heads that are painted with scarlet. Gentle pressure on the leaves releases the minty fragrance for which this species is known. I have seen this species growing in full sun and partial shade, but mostly at the higher elevations of the watershed, at least in its native environment, but this species is very adaptable and fits well in most landscape settings. Even today, its traditional use as a mint tea is still viable. Scarlet beebalm blooms from early to mid-summer.
I have always been a promoter of native species, especially when those species are attractive and beneficial to other species. They help to provide a sense of place and once established require less care and maintenance than ornamental and non-native species. Monardas have so many desirable qualities, it would be a shame to not plant more of them. Your bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds will thank you for it.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist, whose entire career has been spent in the wilds of Hickory Nut Gorge. Clint is currently teaching high school science at Lake Lure Classical Academy.