The month of March is just around the corner and now is the perfect time to plan and choose which plants will make the list to add to the landscape this year. Monarda is a versatile herbaceous perennial that should be considered for a spot in the top ten.
The genus name ‘Monarda’ is named for Nicolas Monardes, a 16th century Spanish Botanist and author of numerous articles on medicinal and useful plants. Other common names for this plant include; bee balm, wild bergamot, bergamot, horsemint and Oswego tea. The Oswego Indians introduced this native New York herb to the colonists. The name Oswego tea came from early explorer John Bartram who found settlers near Oswego, N.Y., using its leaves for a tea. The names wild bergamot and bergamot should not be confused with the bergamot tree which yields the oils used in Earl Grey tea.
The foliage is green, arranged opposite, ovate to ovate-lanceolate, 3-6 inches long with a serrated margin and a surface texture ranging from smooth to hairy. The leaves have a wonderfully distinctive scent when bruised. The wispy flower heads come in shades of red, pink, purple and white. They are made up of 2-3” tubular petals in dense terminal whorls either in one or two layers.
Monarda is a member of the mint family and, like other mints, division is usually needed every three years as the centers die out. This perennial has an acceptable Colorado hardiness zone of 3-9 and therefore can be grown successfully in most areas of our diocese. It has a moderate to fast growth rate with a height and width of 2-5 feet. They grow in tall upright stalks that may require staking before the end of the season. While tolerating most soil types these plants prefer moist ground. Full sun is best, but some shade is all right.
While not perfect, Monarda can have two health issues: powdery mildew (serious in some cultivars) and rust. Powdery mildew can be controlled by providing sufficient moisture and good air circulation and making sure it is planted in an area with well-drained soil. Rust management strategies include good sanitation, avoiding overhead watering and, again, thinning to increase air circulation in the plant canopy. During the growing season leaves with rust should be removed and discarded avoiding the compost pile.
Monarda is considered to be a Colorado native herbaceous perennial. A Colorado native means they are naturally adapted to our climates, soils and environmental conditions. When planted in the right place and properly cared for they make ideal plants that can provide years of enjoyment.
In the test garden at Colorado State University Monarda ‘Fireball’ was a healthy bloomer with superior powdery mildew resistance even with overhead watering. They proved to be vigorous plants and were highly recommended for use in the back border of a perennial garden. ‘Didyma’ species has red flowers and is the true “Oswego Tea”. ‘Fistulosa’ grows well in our diocese up to 9,000 feet. It prefers full sun and has rose to purple flowers. The leaves are more hairy and less toothed than didyma with stems that grow out of the previous flower head.
As the month of March is quickly approaching and visions of green grass and flowers blooming are near. The first day of March, more importantly, is Ash Wednesday. In the hustle and bustle of today’s modern times, we are reminded by 1 Corinthians 10:31 “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all in the glory of God.”
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)