Wild Walk: Monarda

Monardaby Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

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 bee balm, 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.

Monarda_citriodora

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!

[i] US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs; Biopesticide Registration Action Document; Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division, Thymol (PC Code 080402);

© Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.


THPOKH-214x321_thumb7The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs

Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide!  From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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11 responses to “Wild Walk: Monarda

  1. Great article, JIll. I thought the crimson monarda was nonnative. And I had not thought to try the flowers – though we only have a few plants and I hate to deprive the bees and butterflies. Maybe just a few petals! There are more black swallowtails than I have seem in years, and quite a few yellow – which have seemed rare.

    • Thanks, Lois – so glad you liked the article. I’m sure there are plenty of cultivated varities with red flowers and it can be hard to tell the difference between the two unless you find them in a true wild setting. I know what you mean about the bees and butterflies, as well, but a couple flowers in a salad would be so much fun!

  2. Thanks for all the information about Monarda. Here in central Texas the most common species is M. citriodora, which is one of the ones you mentioned that have a somewhat lemony aroma. With the continuing drought, this wasn’t a great year for them, but they can form large colonies when conditions are more favorable.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    • Thanks Steve. Nice blog! I’ll be checking in there more often.

      I love the citirodora but I haven’t seen any in a few years, probably because I’ve been outside of their growing regions for two summers now. The drought and heat have hit the natives hard this year, but isn’t it amazing how they manage to hang in there?

  3. By coincidence I was out this morning and was surprised to find a few horsemint flowers that still had some color in them. Even in a normally wet year this would be past their regular time.

  4. Hard to say. The ones I saw earlier in the season, though not prolific, appeared at their normal time.

  5. On a nature walk in Alabama a couple of months ago a monarda with mint-scented leaves was identified. I took home the piece used to pass among the participants and have rooted it. I’d like to identify it. It was growing in a moist, shady area. Any ideas?

    • Hi Carole! Nature walks are great ways to learn about native plants. Unfortunately, its almost impossible to identify your monarda without seeing the blooms because almost all monardas have leaves with a minty smell. If possible, ask the guide who took you on the walk – perhaps he/she can tell you what species it is (or even what species it is likely to be based on their knowledge of the local flora). Otherwise, you might have to wait until it blooms next year and then use a state wildflower guide or the internet to positively identify it. Either way, I’ll bet it’s a beauty! 🙂

  6. The name Monarda was first applied to this genus by Linnaeus in 1737 in his ‘Hortus Cliffortianus’, not in 1574.

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