Monarda didyma is a native perennial herb in the Lamiaceae (mint) family as you can easily tell by its minty-scented foliage and square stem. Other common names include scarlet or crimson bee balm, Oswego tea, red bergamot and scarlet monarda. The plant earned its common name “bergamot” because its spicy fragrance is similar to that of the bergamot orange which is the source of bergamot oil used to flavor Earl Grey tea. Speaking of tea, early colonists used scarlet bee balm when regular tea was scarce.
Swedish naturalist and explorer Carl Linnaeus named the genus Monarda in honor of 16th-century Spanish botanist and physician Nicolás Monardes, who studied New World medicinal plants in Spain.
This plant can reach a height of 4 feet and will spread rapidly by underground stolons. It will grow in many conditions, from sun to part-shade, and in moist to wet humus soil. When planted in full sun, make sure it has moisture throughout the summer, as it does not like to dry out. Deadheading will prolong flowering.
The nectar attracts bees and hummingbirds and is the larval host to the hermit sphinx, orange mint moths and raspberry pyrausta signatalis moths. Monarda tolerates rabbits, deer and clay soils, will grow under walnut trees and has flowers that are edible. What’s not to like about this amazing plant? I recently planted this in my newly established pollinator garden and I’m looking forward to having it bloom into the fall months.
The Botanical Gardens, located at 151 W. T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. The Gardens are open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Due to COVID-19, restrooms and drinking water are not available at this time. The Visitors Center and the Gift Shop are currently closed, but may be open soon. Learn more about educational programs at AshevilleBotanicalGardens.org.