Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bee Balm – Garden Pest or Protected Species?

Earlier this year we had a visitor in who was telling me how she had submitted a floral arrangement at a garden show only to have it rejected because it had bee balm in it and bee balm was a protected plant in New York State. “What?!?” I said. “Bee balm’s not protected; it grows like a weed in my gardens!” “Oh, but it is,” she claimed. I promptly grabbed a copy of New York State’s Protected Plant List (put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation), and sure enough, bee balm (Monarda didyma), aka: Oswego Tea, is protected.

In truth, this plant is not yet an endangered species, nor is it threatened. It is, however, listed as exploitably vulnerable, which means it is “likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of [its range] within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.” As I stand there and stare at my flower beds, which are slowly being swallowed up by bee balm, I find this hard to imagine.

New York is home to five species of Monarda: basil-balm (M. clinopodia), bee-balm/Oswego tea (M. didyma), wild bergamot/horsemint (M. fistulosa), bee-balm/purple bergamot (M. media), and dotted horsemint (M. punctata). Of these five, only one (basil-balm) is non-native, yet at the same time it is listed as rare.

Two of my gardens are a sea of red: bee balm that has gotten out of control. Still, the hummingbirds like it, and that’s why I planted it. What I have yet to discover is why this one is so aggressive, while the other varieties I have planted have obligingly stayed in their private little clumps: the pale purple wild bergamot, which blooms late in the season, the lovely pink one, which is only just now budding, and the scrawny white one, although I’ve got my eye on this one because it seems to be slowly spreading (I’m just now thinking it might be basil-balm). I had a deep magenta variety which also spread, but I haven’t seen much of that one lately; it could be I dug it all up and gave it away.

Most bee balms that you find in nurseries today are hybridized varieties, which come in all sorts of colors and fancy names. Domesticated. The only problem I have found with these is that many are prone to powdery mildew, which doesn’t seem to harm the plants much, but it sure looks awful. My phlox are also susceptible to the mildew, but I’m not too keen on the white phlox, so I don’t feel too badly when I pull out contaminated plants.

Since I’ve sort of made it a mission to promote native flowers in my gardens, I guess I don’t mind too much that the bee balm is thriving, especially now that I know it is a protected plant. Maybe I’ll start offering it to the State for reclamation plantings!


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