There is nothing quite as enchanting as a chance encounter with a wild patch of flowering monarda. The electric colors of their shaggy, upright flowers light up the shady places they prefer; dazzling the unprepared eye. Once familiar with the sweet oregano-like scent of this delicately delectable herb one can often smell a colony of monarda long before seeing it. And if the scent doesn’t give it away, the sound of buzzing bees will.
This wildflower has many names to go along with its many faces, but the most commonly used name today is that of its Latin genus, monarda, given to the plant in 1574 in honor of Nicolás Monardes, a Spanish botanist and physician who wrote about New World plants.
North America boasts 17 native species of monarda and multitudes of cultivated varieties that all belong to the Lamiaceae (formerly Labiateae), or mint, family. Because of their similarities, most monardas are often referred to by only a few common names or variations of those names, including beebalm, Oswego tea, horsemint, and bergamot.
The two species of monarda most encountered in the wild are Monarda fistulosa, which has rich, purple-pink blossoms and Monarda didyma, which has screaming crimson blossoms. Both have similar characteristics and are interchangeable for whichever reason, or name, you might choose. Both are tall, sometimes bushy plants that can reach heights of over three feet. In general, wild monardas are often found growing in small groups or colonies.
Monardas, whether wild or cultivated, come in a dizzying array of sizes, shapes, and flower configurations, and come in every conceivable combination of white, pink, purple and red that you can imagine. And while a few varieties of monarda have lemon-, or mint-scented leaves, most have a scent that is reminiscent of oregano – to which monardas are related.
The leaves and flowers of all monardas are edible to one degree or another but they are at their best after the leaves have been carefully dried. Use like oregano in spice blends, pepper substitutes, on meat, poultry and fish. Monarda is excellent on potatoes, roasted vegetables, and in soups stews and sauces, or anywhere a strong oregano flavor is desired. The lemon-flavored monardas can be used like lemon thyme and go well with fish, chicken, seafood and pasta. Regardless of the specific flavor, monarda makes a lovely addition to winter tea blends. The flowers of monarda are edible as well and are most welcome in green salads and cold fruit dishes and when added to finished bottles of herbed vinegar, impart a subtle flavor and add a pretty visual touch.
Used in much the same way as other mint family members such as the origanum and thymus species, monarda has been employed as a diaphoretic, carminative, antiseptic, anesthetic, antifungal, antispasmodic, and stimulant. Recent research indicates that thymol is showing promise as a strong antimutagenic and antitumor agent. And while thymol is soluble in water (as in a tea or decoction), the medicinal properties of the leaves are more potent when tinctured.
Proven as an antimicrobial biocide compound, thymol is used commercially as an antiseptic in mouthwash. Used several times a day as a gargle or mouthwash, simple decoctions or diluted tinctures help ease sore throats, toothaches and mouth sores. Hot leaf tea with honey has traditionally been used as a treatment for the symptoms of colds or flu with fever, and to ease nausea, gas and flatulence. As a compress, monarda is useful in preventing infections of minor wounds, rashes, scrapes and cuts and to help reduce fungal infections. Monarda can be used in the bath as a stimulating soak and when used as a rinse, a strong decoction of the leaves can stimulate hair growth.
Keep in mind that not all monardas prefer the same kind of growing conditions. Some varieties thrive in full sun and dry soils, while others require shade and sandy soil. Do some homework before deciding where to plant perennial monardas because, many (but not all) can spread by seed and roots when presented with ideal growing conditions. One thing that all monardas do have in common, however, is that deer and other browsers dislike the smell and taste of the foliage and will leave this beautiful flower alone.
Monarda is an absolute stunner in its natural habitat, but shines equally well in cultivated flower, vegetable and herb gardens. And, of course, it is an exemplary addition to naturalized areas and true wildflower gardens and will attract a plethora of hummingbirds, butterflies and pollinators such as bees. M. fistulosa is the easiest species to start from seed and will readily self-sow if placed in the proper environment. Start seeds indoors in late winter or directly outdoors in late fall. Set seedlings, nursery stock or root divisions in early spring, spacing plants 12”-15” apart in rich, moist soil in an area of partial sun to light shade.
In addition to looking pretty, monarda may also help keep other garden plants from being attacked by pests. Long used as a companion planting in organic gardens, monarda does in fact have natural insecticidal qualities due to its high levels of thymol, which has been identified as a class of hydrocarbon monoterpene that is also found in common thyme. As an organic pesticide, thymol is short lived in soil (5 days) and water (16 days); helping to prevent intrusion into waterways. And according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs, “No unreasonable adverse effects on humans or the environment are anticipated from aggregate exposure to thymol.”[i]
With all these wonderful attributes, monarda is a natural beauty that should be grown in every garden.