With minimal care, this arresting, versatile plant (that is rare in Ohio) will bring beauty, savory fragrance, and ruby-throated hummingbirds to your landscape. From June through August, spiky clusters of long, tubular flowers float like miniature fireworks atop four-sided stems lined with large leaves. The dense foliage has a minty aroma when crushed, which, along with square stems, paired leaves, and two-lobed flowers, is typical of members of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Native to eastern North America and Canada, scarlet bee balm is often found in areas with moisture, sunlight, and rich soils. In these ideal conditions, it may grow up to 5-6’ tall, but it usually tops off at around 3-4’, spreading readily to form colonies via self-seeding or shallow rhizomes. Although it will adapt to dappled shade, bee balm does its best flowering in full sun. It flourishes in nearly any well-drained soil, including clay, and tolerates occasional drought and proximity to black walnut. A site with consistent moisture promotes healthier plants, and an initial mix-in of compost before planting is also recommended. Powdery mildew is a common but harmless issue with bee balm. Full sunlight and pruning within the clump to increase airflow are “an ounce of prevention.” To re-invigorate plants, divide clumps every two or three years in early spring. Remove spent flower heads during the growing season to prolong blooming periods for hungry pollinators.
Scarlet bee balm is pollinated primarily by ruby-throated hummingbirds because they are extremely efficient pollinators--they visit the same flower species over and over, quickly slurping up nectar and collecting copious amounts of pollen on their heads, bodies, and beaks. The lengthy floral tubes are made to order for the long, thin beaks and tongues of hummingbirds. Large amounts of diluted nectar, which is not as appealing to less-efficient pollinators, collect in the tubes. The tongues of hummingbirds are able to lap 15-20 times a second, making short work of the nectar-and-pollen-gathering process. Plants that evolved to attract these efficient pollinators have a few things in common. The flowers hold copious amounts of nectar, they offer no landing pad for bees to rest on, the flowers are positioned for hovering pollinators, and they tend to be red or another bright color. Research has shown that hummingbirds have always preferred flowers with lots of nectar, regardless of color. Because bees and other pollinators can’t detect the color red, those flowers usually retain the most nectar. Over time, hummingbirds have learned that red or colorful flowers hold abundant rewards. Scarlet bee balm does have other visitors, however, including butterflies, specialist bees, moths, generalist bees, and other pollinating insects.
The genus name, Monarda, refers to Nicolas Monardes, a 16-century Spanish botanist, and didyma translates to "in pairs," referring to the stamens occurring in pairs. The common name comes from the traditional practice of using a poultice of the plant to soothe bee stings. Another common name, Oswego tea, refers to the Oswego Native Americans who taught early white settlers how to make a tea from the leaves.
Native habitats include banks of streams, open woods, and meadows. This is an excellent nectar plant for butterfly, native, perennial, and cottage gardens; perennial borders; specimen plantings; and banks of ponds or streams.
Grows 2-4’ tall and 2-3’ wide; rarely grows up to 6’ tall.
Prefers full sun and tolerates part shade.
Does best in moist, rich, loamy soils but will tolerate nearly any well-drained soil and occasional drought.
A compact, rounded, 2-4” flower head at the top of the stem is composed of 13-15 narrow, two-lipped flowers up to 1 ½” long with the upper lip forming a corolla tube. Each head is ringed underneath by a whorl of red-tinged, leafy bracts. Capsules of ovoid nutlets grow September-October.
Opposite leaves are 3-6” long and 1-3” wide, coarsely toothed, and sparsely hairy on the upper and lower leaf surfaces.
Host plant for larvae of 11 species of Lepidoptera larvae (five are specialists), including hermit sphinx, orange mint moth, and the raspberry pyrausta. Bee balm supports the following specialized bees: Dufourea monardae (a species of sweat bee), Perdita gerhardi, and Protandrena abdominalis (a species of mining bee). Deer and rabbits avoid the rough, pungent leaves.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Various Native American tribes and early settlers used the plant to treat a wide range of ailments, such as skin and mouth infections, minor wounds, stomach illness, internal parasites, headaches and fevers, bronchial ailments, and flatulence. Plants of the Monarda genus contain a compound called carminative, which acts as a mild sedative. Bee balm is a natural source of an antiseptic compound that is used in commercial mouthwashes.
Dried leaves and flower heads are used to brew teas. Fresh leaves and shoot tips are used in salads. The leaves and flowers are also used to flavor jellies, soups, stews, and fruit salads.
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