Monarda: Easy but Difficult


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

When poring through the catalogues, you’ll inevitably come across exciting descriptions of Monarda. Before making the plunge, you might want to learn more about this popular native plant.

My experiences with Monarda have not been kind ones. The first ones I planted became so infected with powdery mildew that I had to pull them out. Others following my first venture into Monarda-dom flopped at the first decent rainfall or trekked great distances throughout the garden.

Yet, I love the flowers on this native plant. Surely, there is a Monarda out there for me.

A member of the mint family, Monarda has yet to earn my respect in the garden because it’s so willing to misbehave. However, perhaps help is on its way.

Mt. Cuba Center, having published its study after a three-year long period testing untold numbers of Monarda, has come to the rescue. You can see the results at Monarda, it turns out, has an attractive medicinal quality to keep in mind: Rubbing its crushed leaves over a bee sting eases the pain, thereby giving this native plant the common name of bee balm.

While there are more than 17 Monarda species, only two are used for horticultural purposes: M. didyma and M. fistulosa. It’s important to remember the species name here because M. didyma is the more “rambunctious” of the two, an important consideration if your garden is on the small side. If you want it to spread, by all means plant M. didyma; if you want to contain it, you’re better off with M. fistulosa.

Monarda spreads via rhizomes so the Mt. Cuba Center feels it is wise to sever the wandering rhizomes from the main plant in the spring before the underground stems begin to elongate. Because monarda is shallow rooted, this is easily done using a spade.

Hybridizers now breed Monardas to be resistant to powdery mildew so be sure to choose a cultivar that bears this description. If powdery mildew threatens to overtake the plant, the center advises cutting it back to promote new foliage — although it admits it had mixed results with this method.

The problem for many gardeners is the containment of the wandering Monarda. In the perennial border, plant Monardas next to strong and vigorous plants that can hold onto their own space against invaders. Plants such as asters, leucanthemums and Rudbeckias work well with Monardas.

The colors of Monarda are essentially purple, red and pink, although I have seen a white one, Bryan Thompson, offered in catalogues. While many Monardas tend to be tall, in the two-to-four-foot range, hybridizers are making an effort to produce more compact varieties. Unfortunately, none of the compact ones produced particularly good results in the trials except for Grand Marshall.

Hummingbirds love the large red flowers produced by M. didyma Jacob Cline that is widely available. If you want to attract butterflies, try M. fistulosa Claire Grace. This cultivar received the highest mention in the Mt. Cuba study and was notable for its sturdiness, so hopefully it will not flop easily.

Plant Monarda in full sun in soil that remains relatively moist. Because dry soils can encourage powdery mildew, it’s important not to let the soil completely dry out.

This is a valuable study about one of our popular native plants, of which we probably haven’t given a lot of thought. With wise choosing and vigilance, Monarda can be a valued member of the perennial garden.

Just remember that this member of the mint family means that you cannot just plant it and then walk away. And just remember that “fistulosa” is usually more preferable than “didyma.” Now you’re on your way to learning garden Latin.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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1 Comment on "Monarda: Easy but Difficult"

  1. The leaves and flowers of this plant taste like bergamot, so you can make “Earl Gray” tea by adding them to the brew.

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