They go by many common names, including horsemint and bergamot, but the common name I like the most for the plants in the genus Monarda is “Bee Balm.” Just as the name suggests, this group of plants is highly attractive to many types of bees and other pollinators and is a fantastic addition to any pollinator garden, providing an attractive flower display and nectar source through the hot summer months.
Monarda is a genus of plants endemic to North America. As members of the family Lamiaceae, also known as the mint family, these plants share many common traits with other more familiar mints, including stems that are square in cross-section, leaves that are arranged opposite of each other, and flowers clustered at the tips of the branches. Species in the tribe Mentheae, which is the largest tribe of mints, have distinctively aromatic odors, which make them favorites for use in cooking, scented candles, potpourri, and even for medicinal purposes. The bee balms also belong to the Mentheae and have been used in teas to ease sore throats, digestive issues, and other ailments.
There are about two dozen species of bee balms across North America, most of which occur in the south-central part of the continent. Texas is home to the greatest diversity, but five species are common to the eastern US and the Carolinas. The most widespread is the lavender colored Monarda fistulosa, also known as “wild bergamot.” The two northern species are aptly named for the colors of their flowers, scarlet bee balm, M. didyma, and purple bergamot, M. media. The fourth species that is more common in the south is lemon bee balm, M. citriodora, named for its distinctly citrus odor. The fifth species is spotted bee balm, M. punctata. While spotted bee balm is probably the best adapted for South Carolina’s hot summers, it is not planted as commonly as the other species because its flowers are not as vibrantly colored. I would argue that it is more interesting than the other species because of its unique texture and that the leaves around the flower clusters are colored lavender.
Another advantage of the spotted bee balm is that it is the only eastern species that is attractive to western honey bees. While all of the bee balms are exceptional nectar producers that are visited by numerous species of bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds, the flowers of most bee balms are too long and narrow for honey bees to access the nectaries. The spotted bee balm has shorter and wider flowers that honey bees can access. The pollinator test plots at the Pee Dee Research Station include spotted bee balm, and I have observed honey bees using them through the late summer and fall. They started blooming in mid-summer and continued to be productive until mid-October. I have been very impressed with how long they have bloomed, their tolerance for the hot, sandy site, and the diversity of pollinators that they have attracted.
The spotted bee balm bloomed at the Pee Dee station until mid-October, but bee balms, in general, are mid-summer bloomers. You might ask why I would discuss them in the fall if they bloom in the summer. Well, I’m glad you asked. Bee balms are perennial plants, and perennials are best planted in the fall of the year. You can plant bee balms now either by seed or by seedlings. If you plant by seed, be patient. They will not germinate until next spring. If you are considering adding bee balms to your yard, or better yet, to field borders and firebreaks at the farm, then now is the time to get them in the ground. Find a sunny location, eliminate competing vegetation, and keep the soil moist after planting, and you will get to enjoy bee balms next summer.
For more information, see Monarda, HGIC 1153, Growing Perennials, and HGIC 1727, Pollinator Gardening.