A balm for bees and boycotts

I bought the herb labeled “Bee Balm” on a lark. I planted the small ground hugging perennial that summer and watched it spread into a patch of green. When the second year arrived it bloomed in huge four foot stalks topped with the most interesting fuchsia flowers. But what knocked me out is that each one drew bees like crazy, but not just honeybees, but many species in all sizes, shapes and colors. I’d no idea so many wild bees visited my garden until they began to collect on these flowers.

It’s a plant that lost favor during the years that bees of any kind were insecta non grata in most American gardens. Homeowners were fearful of painful stings. Others afflicted with allergies demanded a bee-free garden to avoid the potential for anaphylactic shock. Where kids and swimming pools combine, bees were definitely undesirable. But things have changed dramatically since then as we wake up to the dwindling population of pollinators crucial to so many agricultural crops.

My experience with Monarda fistulosa and its sister Monarda didyma and the bees changed the way I look at native plants. These flowers range from the east coast states all the way to Idaho and Washington with many regional variations. Naturally wild bee species are programmed to seek this perennial wildflower that came into gardens very early on.

What really drove its popularity is rooted in American Revolution history. Bee balm has long been a popular medicinal among Native Americans within its range. They prepared it as an herbal tea to treat a wide variety of ailments. The flavor of the tea was so appealing that colonists took to drinking it after the Boston Tea Party when they boycotted all imported, heavily taxed English tea. This is why the New England species of Monarda is commonly called “Oswego tea”.

My perennials are not pampered so it was a pleasure to see this native was rugged enough to grow in rural areas without special care. This is a sun lover with one vulnerability: mildew. When grown where air is still, or in high humidity, foliage can be attached by powdery mildew that accumulates on the leaves to discolor and distort. Reserve these plants for open spaces where they’ll feel the natural exchanges of air temperatures and moisture throughout the day and night.

Another issue with monarda that puts it well away from living areas is its size. When in full bloom this is a big plant with tall very slender flower stems too numerous and thin to stake properly for support. When weighted down by rain water or overhead irrigation they instantly flop. Prefab wire perennial frameworks set upon the plant early in the year allow the stems to rise up through these openings to provide invisible support.

Very old gardening books remind us to put monarda in the back of the border where the flower stalks can rise without obscuring other plants. It’s recommended to keep them back from edges of walk ways where being brushed by passer’s by risks their stability too.

This is a cold hardy perennial rated to a frigid Zone 4, but it thrives in California’s dry summers easily with modest irrigation. Small fuel volume combined with spring growth and early flowering is timed nicely for western fire-prone home sites because they can be cut down flat after flowering for the dry wildfire season.

Monarda is among the least known but the most interesting of all native perennials. It works well with all the tallgrass prairie favorites such as shooting star and purple coneflower. It’s also adapted to grow among meadow grasses where the stalks can be mowed down at season’s end for a quick and easy tidy up. Yet it’s highbrow enough to fit into the most elegant perennial border too. So if you want bees, invite Monarda, into your summer garden and she will bring in the rarely seen pollinators no matter where you live.


Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com