This time of year you might be noticing some red or lavender flowers along the sides of the roads or in old fields as you are out driving or hiking. If you slow down and stop to take a look, what you might be seeing is one of our native species of the genus Monarda, commonly known as Beebalm or Oswego Tea by many gardeners. There are a variety of cultivars and hybrids available at most garden centers with enticing names – such as ‘Coral Reef’ or ‘Raspberry Wine’. Gardeners have been using beebalm in their gardens for years – it is a great choice for attracting hummingbirds and other pollinators and is a beautiful splash of summer color.
The group of plants in the Monarda genus are often just called beebalm as a whole – even though there are many distinct species. And many gardeners don’t realize that we have a number of different native Monardas in our area – in fact Monarda is a North American genus of over a dozen species.
Since there are so many cultivars of different colors available at many retail centers, I have found many visitors to the nursery just saying that they would like the ‘lavender one’ or the ‘red one’ – not realizing that they are in fact different species. At many garden centers, they may in fact just be different cultivars of the same plant, but at our nursery – the ‘red one’ and the ‘lavendar one’ are in fact two entirely different species – Beebalm (M. didyma) and Wild Bergamot (M. fistulosa). Beebalm needs a moist soil to be happy, while Bergamot can take a hotter, drier site. If you don’t have the moisture, give Beebalm a bit of shade, and it should be happy. Both are aggressive spreaders, and are best used in natural landscapes – wildflower meadows, large perennial borders, or really just anywhere where they have room to stretch their legs. If you have a small spot where you want a plant to stay in place, Monarda is not a good choice.
While both are considered native to NY and the Adirondacks according to the NY Plant Atlas – we have stands of lavender Wild Bergamot blooming in the fields around us right now – but I must say I personally have seen red Beebalm around here. I guess it must be out there somewhere… (maybe even someone reading this will have seen it and can tell me where to find it!)
Besides the more well known Beebalm and Wild Bergamot, we have some other great monardas for gardens in NY as well. M. media, Purple beebalm, is another nice choice. It is very similar to M. fistulosa in color. One that looks quite different is M. punctata, called Spotted Beebalm or Spotted Horsemint. While the flowers are smaller, the bracts around the flowers take on color to help attract pollinators.
It stays shorter than its relatives – so it works well planted in front of the taller beebalm and bergamot. It can also take a drier, poorer soil than its taller sibling – which also means it can withstand the hot, dry, weather we have been having this summer just fine. We just started growing this one at the nursery this year – and I am definitely a fan right along with the hummingbirds and other pollinators.