Hello, My Name Is Monarda

by | May 27, 2018 | Native Plants

Horsemint, Monarda citiodora PHOTO Wildflower Center

Monarda citiodora PHOTO Wildflower Center

Have you ever imagined discovering a plant? What if you stumbled across a chile pequin not knowing the fiery flavor of its tiny red fruit, or unsuspectingly approached a Texas mountain laurel in bloom, only to be hit in the nose with a grape-soda fragrance bomb? That’d be crazy, right?

Nicolas Bautista Monardes — a 16th century physician and botanist — didn’t actually discover plants in the genus Monarda. Their singular scents and towering stacks of petals and bracts were known and used by indigenous North Americans before him. But he did study them extensively from across the pond in Spain, where he took a particular interest in their medicinal properties (monardas are said to treat an array of human ailments). And they were eventually named in his honor by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Part of the mint family, Lamiaceae, plants in this aromatic genus are popular with pollinators as well as people, counting native bees, butterflies, hawkmoths and hummingbirds among their biggest fans. Besides that, they’re darn pretty and just might inspire a friendly competition (see below). Get to know these brawny bloomers and keep an eye out during spring and summer: They are most likely coming to a field or garden near you.

Spotted beebalm, Monarda punctata PHOTO R.W. Smith

Monarda punctata PHOTO R.W. Smith

Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata)

This aromatic, erect perennial ranges in height from a squat 6 inches up to 3 feet. Yellowish rosettes feature deep maroon specks and occur in whorls, forming dense spikes at the ends of stems. Each whorl has a fringe of more conspicuous bracts under it — the parts many would mistake for petals. These leaflike bracts can be whitish, pale to dark purple, bold pink or even pale yellow or light green. (Like all monardas, it’s susceptible to powdery mildew.)

  • Language Lesson: puncta = point (which, in this case, refers to flowers’ spotted petals)
  • Native Distribution: VT to MN, south to TX and NM and north to KS, through to East Coast; isolated in CA
  • Native Habitat: Prairies, Plains, Meadows, Pastures, Savannas
  • Water Use: Low
  • Light Requirement: Sun
  • Soil Moisture: Dry
  • Get Growing: Spotted beebalm is easily propagated from untreated seed sown in fall or stratified seed sown in spring.
  • The Nose Knows: This monarda’s noticeably fragrant leaves smell like fine Greek oregano.
  • Health Note: Liquid from fresh leaves crushed and steeped in cold water is said to ease backache; also used for fever, inflammation and chills.


Shrubby beebalm, Monarda fruticulosa PHOTO Bill Carr

Monarda fruticulosa PHOTO Bill Carr


Shrubby Beebalm (Monarda fruticulosa)

This striking monarda is particularly hardy in dry, hot weather, something its silvery color and covering of fine hairs help with (both reflect sunlight, and the fuzziness can help trap moisture). It is said to be easily grown from seed, but you might have to harvest seed from the wild — with permission, of course — as it is rarely sold. Because this bushy beauty is partial to arid climes, it is one monarda that’s less prone to the dreaded powdery mildew.

  • Language Lesson: frutica = bushy or shrubby
  • Native Distribution: Southern TX (specifically Nueces, Zapata, Jim Hogg, Brooks, Kenedy, Starr and Hidalgo counties)
  • Native Habitat: Prairies, Plains, Brush Country, Savannas
  • Water Use: Low
  • Light Requirement: Sun, Part Sun
  • Soil Moisture: Dry
  • Get Growing: Plant in deep, sandy soil that drains well and you’ll be doing a good job of replicating this species’ South Texas homeland, where it’s endemic. Endemic means it’s found nowhere else because it’s “really well suited to that particular spot,” according to Center Plant Conservationist Minnette Marr.


Horsemint, Monarda citiodora PHOTO Wildflower Center

Monarda citiodora PHOTO Wildflower Center

Horsemint (Monarda citriodora)

Horsemint is an aromatic annual with unusual flower heads. Like ruffles on landscapes, this monarda is perhaps the most commonly seen in Central Texas, and its elongated spikes of flowers and bracts captivate onlookers with bold color from near-fuchsia to lavender (with occasional appearances in almost white). Several stems grow from the base and are lined with pairs of lance-shaped leaves.

  • Language Lesson: citria = lemon or citrus
  • Native Distribution: Eastern KY, MO and KS, south to AR, TX, NM and Mexico; introduced eastward
  • Native Habitat: Prairies, Plains, Meadows, Pastures, Savannas, Hillsides, Slopes
  • Water Use: Low
  • Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade
  • Soil Moisture: Dry
  • Get Growing: This highly deer-resistant monarda is very easy to grow and often forms large colonies (in fact, it can become aggressive). Though its prime bloom months are May through July, kept watered, it will continue flowering as late as early October!
  • The Nose Knows: Horsemint has a distinctive citrus or lemony scent when the leaves are rubbed or crushed — hence another common name, lemon beebalm. Some think the more common “horsemint” comes from horses being partial to eating the plant (à la Mentos for the equine).
  • Matters of Taste: Raw and cooked leaves are also consumed by humans, adding flavor to salads and entrees, and steeped leaves make a pleasantly mellow tea that is said to relieve stomach aches.




Monarda fruticulosa or M. viridissima PHOTO Amy McCullough

Do the Monarda Limbo

The question is not how low can you go, but how high can it grow?
Monarda species are long and lean and grow in what look like “stories.” This led some Wildflower Center staff to challenge one another to find the most levels on blooming monardas around the Center and on their travels. Yours truly found this 13-level behemoth (which we’ve narrowed down to either Monarda fruticulosa or M. viridissima) near Luling, Texas, in early summer 2016. Explore outdoors and let us know what you find!


Wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa PHOTO Sally and Andy Wasowski

Monarda fistulosa PHOTO Sally and Andy Wasowski 

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Wild bergamot is a popular perennial, in large part because it’s showy and smells nice: First, it wows your eyeballs with ragged pompom clusters of lavender, pink or white flowers. Then it coaxes your nose with its citrusy, slightly spicy, elegant scent. And its blooms perch atop open-branched stems that can get as tall as 5 feet, making for an all-around intoxicating plant.

  • Language Lesson: fistulosa = porous, hollow, reedlike or tubular (which refers to its hollow stems)
  • Native Distribution: Most of southern Canada and the U.S. east of the Rockies, except Maritime Provinces and peninsular FL, south to Veracruz in eastern Mexico
  • Native Habitat: Grows in dry open woods, fields, wet meadows and ditches, and at the edges of woods and marshes in eastern Texas.
  • Water Use: Medium
  • Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade
  • Soil Moisture: Dry, Moist
  • Get Growing: Wild bergamot thrives in a wide range of soils, from acidic to alkaline, rich to poor, and sand to clay. It’s relatively hardy, but be wary of poorly aerated soils, as they can lead to mildew. Cultivar ‘Claire Grace’ is more mildew resistant.
  • The Nose Knows: Extract from wild bergamot is a common ingredient in perfumes.
  • Matters of Taste: Leaves can be boiled to make mint tea, used for seasoning, or chewed raw or dried.
  • Health Note: Long ago, oil from the leaves was used to treat respiratory ailments. And wild bergamot tea has been used for treating everything from colic and flatulence to colds, fevers, stomach aches, nosebleeds, insomnia, menstrual cramps and heart trouble. Poulticed leaves have even been said to cure headaches, sore eyes and pimples.


Scarlet beebalm, Monarda didyma PHOTO Vahan Abrahamyan

Monarda didyma PHOTO Vahan Abrahamyan/Shutterstock


Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma)

The blooms of scarlet beebalm are reminiscent of bright red fireworks bursting over a night sky on the Fourth of July. This classic eastern wildflower is often blooming then too (it is typically seen flourishing from May through October). Stems are 3 feet tall on average and adorned by large, oval, dark green leaves (which aid in that night-sky impression). Individual flowers are narrowly tube-shaped, clustered tightly together, and fascinating to look at up close. Another common name is Oswego tea.

  • Language Lesson: didy = twin, occuring in pairs
  • Native Distribution: OH to NJ, south along mountains to GA and TN; escaped elsewhere
  • Native Habitat: Moist, open woods; meadows; stream banks; mountains to 6,500 feet
  • Water Use: Medium
  • Light Requirement: Sun, Part Shade
  • Soil Moisture: Moist, Wet
  • Get Growing: Scarlet beebalm does best in full sun and rich soil that’s evenly moist. It spreads through stolons and rhizomes, so you’ll have quite a patch going if you want one. But it, too, is susceptible to powdery mildew (some cultivars, such as ‘Jacob Cline,’ are mildew resistant). This showy, frequently cultivated plant pairs well with coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and gayfeathers (Liatris spp.).
  • The Nose Knows: The leaves of scarlet beebalm have a distinctly minty aroma.
  • Health Note: Its medicinal uses include expelling worms and treating gas, fever and stomach ailments. The name “beebalm” comes from the use of crushed leaves to soothe bee stings.
  • Bird Bestie: Hummingbirds are especially attracted to the red flowers.



Monarda pairings PHOTO Wildflower Center

Monarda in the mix at the Wildflower Center PHOTO Wildflower Center

Perfect Pairings

Monarda species generally play well with others. In Central Texas, you’ll find them blooming among common wildflower species including (but certainly not limited to) black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) and plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria).

The combination offers a nice mix of warm and cool colors, from deep rust and fiery red to soothing violet. Plant a rainbow!