Get growing: Monarda mayhem

  • Bees on bee balm. FILE PHOTO/PAT LEUCHTMAN

  • Scarlet bee balm may be the showiest monarda in the garden, looking like nature’s fireworks. TNS

For the Gazette
Published: 4/27/2020 2:01:57 PM

As I surveyed my garden this week, I noticed that my once-tidy patch of bee balm (Monarda) has taken over far too much real estate. What once were several discrete plants are now a sprawling network connected by shallow runners (these are technically called rhizomes). I was reluctant to just pull out and discard random skeins of roots and shoots. I could hear my mother’s voice calling from the grave: “Those are perfectly good plants! Don’t throw them away!” 

I asked my friend and garden guru Lilian Jackman of Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway for advice. Lilian has a wonderful way of anthropomorphizing plants. She calls Monarda a “wanderer.” “You must think of their cultivation more like the herding of sheep than corralling cattle,” she told me. “Despite our efforts to contain them to a certain locale and make them flourish there year after year, we are working against the plant’s  inherent nature. Wanderers thrive by moving about continually, seeking new ground and fresh soil. If you force them to grow in the same spot year after year, they will likely decline and possibly exhaust themselves.” Yes, my Monarda had become a bit meh over the past couple of years, no doubt suffering from the decline and exhaustion Lilian predicted. Here is the fix she recommended:

Top-dress the emerging shoots with a “nourishing blanket” of nitrogen-rich compost, spreading 2 inches or so all around the plants and down into the clusters. To contain the spread, dig up several of the outlying colonies and plant them in new locations generously amended with compost. This shouldn’t be too hard. Monarda is not a fussy plant. It does well in sun or part shade and likes well-drained but moist soil. I have several spots where my excess shoots might be happy. If the rain will ever stop…

Lilian is endlessly knowledgeable not only about horticulture but all sorts of other plant-related information. Along with her cultivation advice, she mentioned that Monarda is sometimes called Oswego Tea after the Native Americans who made it into a fragrant hot drink. She gave me her recipe: “Once the plants reach 4 inches, clip about six stems and place in a teacup or small pot. Pour boiling water into vessel completely covering the herb, steep 10 minutes and enjoy.” She also told me that Monarda flowers are edible, “with a little taste of sweet nectar at the base of each one.” 

Lilian’s Monarda lore prompted me to further explore the plant’s history. First, the name. The Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus named the genus for Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish physician and botanist born in Seville in 1493 who researched the medicinal properties of North American plants. His three-volume work about plants discovered in the New World was translated into English in 1577 under the title “Joyfull News out of the New Found World.” He never made the trans-Atlantic voyage himself, but learned about plants from sailors, missionaries and other travelers. 

Monardes was an early advocate of experiential learning and close observation in the study of herbal medicine. One of his more dubious “discoveries” was that tobacco was an extraordinarily effect remedy for a wide variety of illnesses, from the common cold to cancer. Perhaps our fearless commander in chief will soon be recommending Monardes’s tobacco cure for COVID-19. 

I had always assumed that the common name “bee balm” had something to do with how the plant’s nectar-filled flowers draw bees like a magnet. Wrong. The name refers to the use of a resin derived from the plant’s leaves that is used to soothe painful bee stings. So if you’re a DIY type and happen to get stung by a bee when working in your garden, you might try to rub Monarda leaves on the sting. My mother — an unwitting follower of Monardes — used to treat our bee stings by wetting a cigarette and applying the damp tobacco to our skin. I wish I could say I was making this up, but it’s true. I think I mentioned in an earlier column that she treated our poison ivy with Clorox applied straight from the bottle. How is it that I am still alive?

Monarda contains thymol, the antiseptic ingredient used in modern mouthwashes. Blackfoot and other Native Americans recognized the plant’s antiseptic properties and used to treat skin infections and wounds as well as mouth and throat infections. Winnebago Indians brewed a tea for its stimulant properties. 

Crimson Monarda (Monarda didyma) is widely available in plant nurseries. If you look closely at the plant, you will see that each terminal flower head contains many individual, two-lipped flowers that together look like a raggedy mophead. Didyma means “twin” in Greek and refers to the two stamens contained in each flower. There are several varieties of Monarda didyma whose colors range from pink to a deep, almost purple shade. Like Phlox paniculata, Monarda is prone to powdery mildew, so it’s best to look for varieties that are mildew-resistant. Good ventilation also helps to combat that problem.  

One of the few positive effects of the pandemic is an increased interest in gardening. Veteran gardeners are paying more attention to what’s growing out there, and newbies are getting into the act. All of us benefit from the advice and wisdom of professionals, and I’m thrilled to report that The New York Times recently hired the garden writer and blogger Margaret Roche to write a series of gardening columns for the paper. (The Times used to have a terrific garden writer named Ann Raver, but her regular column stopped back in 2005.) Many gardeners already enjoy Roche’s weekly blog, A Way to Garden, and now her wonderful garden knowledge and insight will be more widely disseminated. Cheers!

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.


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