Monarda fistulosa and Friends

Without a doubt, the most active pollinator attracting plant in my garden (and with over 300 species of Ontario natives and a few near natives, that’s saying something) is Monarda fistulosa, aka Wild Bergamot.  While the flowers are blooming, there is constant activity with bees of all sizes – from tiny ones the size of a grain of rice to large bumblebees – and butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and even the occasional hummingbird. These just started blooming in my southern Ontario garden in the first week of July and will keep going for a few more weeks. Though susceptible to powdery mildew, my resident bunny never touches it.

(Plant Description and In the Garden sections, below, courtesy of Shaun Booth from In Our Nature.) 

Common Name: Wild Bergamot 

Scientific Name: Monarda fistulosa 

Family: Lamiaceae (Mint Family) 

Alternate Common Names: Bee Balm, Wild Horsemint, Mint-leaf Beebalm, Purple Beebalm 

Plant description: Wild Bergamot features multiple, light green stems that are 4-angled and varyingly hairy. Opposite leaves are found along the stem, measuring up to 10cm long, 3.8cm wide and are borne on 1.5cm long leafstalks. Leaves are broadly lanceolate to ovate, coarsely toothed, hairless to finely hairy and have rounded bases with pointed tips. Branching stems are topped with 7.6cm wide clusters of tubular flowers. Each flower has a tubular upper lip, with protruding stamens and tufts of white hairs at its tips, and a curved lower lip. The outer surfaces of the lips have fine hairs. Flower heads are backed by green bracts that may have a pinkish tinge. Flowers turn into rounded seed heads that contain small, dry, oval seeds. 

In the Garden: Wild Bergamot blooms profusely with pastel purple flower-heads that resemble mini-firework displays. The leaves have a lovely minty-oregano fragrance when rubbed. The rigid stems and rounded seed heads stand strong through the winter months to extend seasonal interest. Herbivores tend to avoid this plant. 

Skill level:  beginner 

Lifespan: perennial 

Exposure: full sun to part shade 

Soil Type: thrives in a wide range of soils, from acid to lime to rich to poor to sand to clay 

Moisture: dry to moist 

Height: 60-120 cm 

Spread: 60-90 cm  

Bloom Period: Jul, Aug, Sep 

Colour: pink, lavender, rarely white 

Fragrant (Y/N): N (but foliage is aromatic) 

Showy Fruit (Y/N): 

Cut Flower (Y/N): 

Pests: powdery mildew can be a significant problem with the monardas, particularly in crowded gardens with poor air circulation; rust can also be a problem 

Natural Habitat: open wooded sites, prairie ditches, meadows, sunny hillsides & rocky slopes 

Wildlife value: Butterflies and many, many native bees are attracted to Wild Bergamot – it is one of the busiest flowers in my garden when in bloom. Hummingbirds may also visit occasionally. The aromatic foliage is unpalatable to most herbivores. 

Butterfly Larva Host Plant For: none 

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9 

Propagation: Wild Bergamot is very easy to start from seed, which should be surface sown because they need light to germinate, but they do not need to be cold stratified. Store seeds in a cool, dry environment for spring sowing. Colonizes by rhizomes so lift and divide every 3 years to control its spread, improve air circulation and for general plant health. Most sources recommend dividing in early spring before new growth starts, but I have successfully divided wild bergamot all summer long. Plants may also be propagated in the greenhouse from stem cuttings. 

Additional Info: Not a good choice in a boulevard garden as it has very low salt tolerance. Prefers drier soils than M. didyma. In most years in my garden, the Wild Bergamot becomes white with powdery mildew by the time the blossoms are nearly done, and I often get good regrowth and a second flush of flowers by cutting them back at this time to the lowest set of leaves. 

Native Range: 

Native Range of Monarda fistulosa

A couple more Monardas to consider: The plants below are gorgeous in the garden, but have a much more restricted range than M. fistulosaMonarda didyma is found mainly in southern Ontario, New York and Pennsylvania while M. punctata is native to the very southwestern tip of the province (Essex County and parts of Chatham-Kent) and to lower Michigan and parts of New York. Perhaps I will do a feature on these at a later date. 

Monarda didyma Bee Balm, Oswego Tea, Firecracker Plant, Wild Oregano (and several other common names, is a bright red cousin of Wild Bergamot that will grow to about 120 cm (4’) tall in well drained sand, clay or loam soils in full sun to part shade. Hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies are especially attracted to the red flowers.  

Monarda punctata: With the least flashy flowers of the three Monardas, the gorgeous Spotted Bee Balm, aka Dotted Horsemint, makes up for it with leafy bracts that turn a glorious pink. It is also the most drought tolerant of the three. In my garden, if you want to see a great black digger wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) just stand by the M. punctata for a few moments when it is blooming – they are almost always on the plant.