Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Balm For All

Have you noticed the smoky pink/lavender flowers along roadsides?  It’s wild Bee Balm known as Monarda or bergamont.  Other names are horsemint and Oswego tea.    The plants are native to North America. 

Bee Balm was named for Spanish botanist and physician, Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), who researched plants received through Spain’s shipping from the New World.

This plant has long been a favorite of folks wanting native wildflowers and the cottage garden look.  It has so much more to offer and I have two big patches.

First, it needs to be planted in mass because insects and birds notice the plant when there’s a large area of them.  It’s easy to have a mass because they self-seed.  There are annual and perennial varieties. 

The flowers are actually many little flowers and in each is the nectar of the gods for insects and birds who love to lap this sweet liquid.  Although most varieties look similar, some new hybrids form flowers on top of other flowers.  In addition to the musky-pink/lavender flowers there are over 50 varieties in shades of bright pink, pure white, purple/blue and red.

It’s the oil in the leaves that contain the strong fragrance.  Native Oswego American Indians have long used the oil for medicinal purposes.  It’s also used as a flavoring and tastes like a mixture of spearmint, peppermint and oregano.  Use the leaves in place of mint or dried to use as tea.  Earl Gray tea often has this oil added for additional flavor.

The plant enjoys full sun and moist well-drained soil.  If the leaves begin to droop, it needs watering.  This past spring was a perfect one for Monarda.  They DO grow in most any condition although not as well or have as many flowers.  In some areas they are considered invasive.  I’ve found the additional plants are easily pulled when they’ve wandered too far or share them with a friend. 

And now for the really good news:  Not only do they attract bees of every kind, which is good news for these pollinators, they are a special favorite for butterflies and hummingbirds.  Other pollinating insects and predatory/parasitic insects that hunt garden pests are also attracted to this plant. 

The oil in the roots is helpful to discourage underground pests.  It is said they enhance the flavor of tomatoes when planted as a companion.

Bee Balm may develop mildew on the leaves but it seldom kills them.   Avoid watering the leaves, plant in full sun, mulch and have good air circulation around them.  I’ve been told mixing equal parts milk and water and spraying on mildew will help reduce.  Some varieties are more resistant.

Picking the flowers encourages a new set of blooms.  Cut back to about 6 inches in the fall.  Destroy all plant debris to keep mildew fungus from overwintering.  Pinch new growth in the spring when it reaches about 8 inches to promote a more bushy plant. 

They can be picked for the vase, dried or use the flowers for in salads, cakes or preserves.  They are a boost of color for the July-August garden.            

Bee Balm grows from 2 – 4 foot tall with a few shorter dwarf varieties.  If you notice the center of the plant dying out, dig up and divide, throwing away the dead middle portion.  Typically, they do not thrive if fertilized. and then click on Illinois (or whatever state you want) and it will list the native plants.  You can then drill down further for more information.  A great source if you want native plants that will thrive in your area. 

In the last week, I’ve had hummingbirds, Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies, a Giant Swallowtail butterfly, Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, a Black Tiger Swallowtail butterfly and several Cabbage White butterflies supping on this plant.  Oh Halleluiah and Hurrah for Bee Balm!


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