Monarda, called by the common names of bee balm, horsemint and bergamot, is part of the mint family. Native Americans made use of monarda's essential healing oils, and spotted bee balm is said to relieve coughs, colds, fevers and minor digestive complaints.
I’VE BANISHED most perennials from my garden in an ongoing attempt to make the place less fussy and labor-intensive. While I’ve scarcely missed day lilies or asters, monarda is one of the few perennials that have crept back in.
Monarda’s long history as a healing herb is reflected in its name, which comes from the 16th-century Spanish physician, Nicolas Monardes, who wrote the first herbal about botanicals from the New World. Called by the common names of bee balm, horsemint and bergamot, it’s part of the mint family, identifiable by square-shaped stems. Native Americans made use of monarda’s essential healing oils, and spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) is said to relieve coughs, colds, fevers and minor digestive complaints.
So how did this old-fashioned perennial, which spreads and requires dividing like the rest of its kin, earn its way back into my heart and garden? Few perennials meet the multitasking criteria I use to prevent carting home every pretty flower that calls my name. I try hard to stick to the idea that a perennial must be fragrant, nurture wildlife, add texture as well as color, and last a long time in the garden or when cut for arrangements.
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With monarda, it comes down to the luminously colored flowers so nectar-rich they vibrate most of the summer with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. And how many cottage-garden perennials make a real architectural statement? Monarda grows several feet tall and forms a bushy clump topped with raylike blooms that look as if they’ve exploded into a deconstructed daisy.
Now it’s true that monarda needs deadheading regularly to keep it blooming. And it has quite a rep for mildew. It’s not even a sentimental favorite of mine, like sweet peas and poppies that I’d grow no matter how much trouble they are.
But both flowers and foliage are aromatic; some kinds smell sweetly of oranges, while others smell spicy, with a whiff of oregano. And just a stem or two of the brilliant, long-lasting flowers perks up a flower arrangement.
Monarda isn’t grown as much as it used to be because of that persistent problem with mildew. The discouraging sight of a clump sheathed in ghostly powdery mildew is enough to put you off it forever. But newer varieties are vastly improved. Famed Dutch nurseryman Piet Oudolf has been breeding mildew-resistant cultivars since the late 1980s. He’s named them after the signs of the zodiac: M. ‘Fishes’ is the first creamy-white bee balm; M. ‘Scorpion’ is an intense shade of violet and stays healthy all summer long.
If you grow monarda in the damp soil it likes best, there’s less chance of mildew. It needs plenty of sunshine, but can take light afternoon shade.
Here’s the dilemma: If you give monarda the evenly moist soil it loves, it can be an aggressive spreader. So try to find a balance between a soggy-rooted marauder and a perennial subdued by being slightly starved of moisture. If it wilts down a bit on a hot summer afternoon (may we, please, have a few of those!) that’s fine, as long as it’s standing upright again in the morning. Monarda looks spectacular planted with ornamental grasses, coneflowers and agastache.
Your best bet is to buy mildew-resistant cultivars, don’t fertilize much, deadhead regularly, and stand back and let the birds and bees have at it. I sneak out in the early mornings to cut monarda for bouquets before its buzzing admirers descend on this perennial that has proved to be worth the work it takes to grow it.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.