Plant of the Week
Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma L.)
Scarlet beebalm is aromatic herb a member of the mint family. It is also known by the common names bergamot, Oswego tea, and crimson beebalm. The common name beebalm refers to the use of a resin derived from the plant that may be used for healing and soothing in particularly of bee stings. The common name Oswego tea refers to the Oswego native Americans living near the present day city of Oswego in upstate New York who taught early white settlers how to make a herbal tea from the plants leaves. The common name bergamont is derived from its fragrance that is similar to the fragrance of the bergamont orange. The genus name Monarda is in recognition of Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish physician, who authored an early herbal that introduced Europe to many of the plants from North America. The species name didyma translates from the Latin meaning "in pairs" or "twins" referring to the stamens occurring in pairs.
Scarlet beebalm is a perennial herb that grows from shallow, slender, creeping rhizomes that grows 2 to 3½ feet tall. Leaves are opposite, 3 to 6 inches in length, coarsely toothed, glabrous to sparsely pubescent on the upper leaf surface and with spreading hairs on the lower leaf surface. The stems are 4-sided or square as are most members of the mint family. The scarlet flowers are grouped in dense heads at the tips of the stems, sometimes with flowering heads developing from the stem axils below. Reddish broad bracts surround the flower clusters. The flowers are long (up to 1½ inches) and narrow and markedly two-lipped; the upper lip continues the corolla tube while the lower lip turns downward and is broader than the upper lip.
The spectacularly scarlet showy flower cluster of scarlet beebalm is a wonderful delight to hikers who commonly encounter this native wildflower in shady woods generally along stream banks and thickets. Flowering starts in late June to early July to late August. Scarlet beebalm’s large, red, scentless, nectar-rich flowers are pollinated primarily by ruby-throated hummingbirds and butterflies especially fritillaries. The dense flowering heads turn from green to brown when ripe. Crushing the ripened flower heads allows for easier seed extraction and then pass the crushed heads into a 1/25 screen to separate out the seeds. Germination is greatly enhanced by a cool, moist stratification for 2 to 3 weeks.
Beebalms are coarse herbs and many gardeners have a love-hate relationship with because of their ability to spread by seed throughout a flowerbed and their susceptibility to succumb to powdery mildew in humid climates. The chance of becoming infected with powdery mildew can be lessened by growing in full sunlight and pruning within the clump to increase airflow. Scarlet beebalm grows best in full sunlight, but also does well in dappled shade although the flowering will be sparser. Scarlet beebalm grows best in moist, fertile soil, where they will spread, and easily forming sizeable colonies. If you want to eliminate self-sowing, remove the flower heads as soon as they are done blooming. Propagation is easiest by division in autumn or spring. They are a premiere nectar plant and should be included in anyone's butterfly garden.