Friday, July 8, 2011

My Minty Monarda

Wild Monarda fistulosa
 This is certainly the time of daylilies in the Flint Hills, but on the native prairie, it is also the time of  Monarda, specifically Monarda fistulosa, otherwise known as Wild Bergamot, in my pastures. 

Wild Bergamot is a common perennial forb of the Kansas prairie, blooming from June through August.  This 3 foot tall member of the mint family is easily identified by the characteristic square stem of the mints and by the blowsy pale pink-purple flowers that stand out from the yellow-green color of the prairie grasses in the summer. When its leaves are crushed, it also releases the fragrant essential oils we've come to associate with the mints.  Highly resistant to drought, it is an essential summer food of bees in the area. 


Wild Bergamot clump on the prairie
Great Plains Native Americans had many uses for this aromatic plant, from a food seasoning ingredient or perfuming their clothes to the treatment of colds and stomach ailments. They also recognized that it had strong antiseptic properties due to a substance now known as "Thymol" (now a common ingredient in mouthwash formulas) and used it as a poultice to treat skin infections and minor wounds.   There are three other Monarda species found in Kansas, Monarda citriodora (Lemon Mint), Monarda punctata (Western Spotted Beebalm), and  Monarda bradburiana (Bradbury Beebalm), but only Lemon Mint might also be found in my local area and I've never seen it.

'Jacob Cline'
Of course, most gardeners know this genus by the more colorful cultivars of Monarda didyma, otherwise know as Scarlet Monarda or Oswego tea.  The latter common name is popular because the Oswego Indians taught the American colonists how to use it for tea after the colonists had a spiteful little Boston Tea Party.  I grow several cultivars of Monarda didyma, from deeper purple-pink 'Blue Stocking' to less intense 'Prairie Knight' and also grow a bright red form that are the descendants of either 'Gardenview Scarlet' or 'Jacob Cline'.  Those two cultivars were identical to my examination from the time I planted them and I had both planted in the same general area, so now that it has spread throughout my front landscaping, I'm not sure which of my scarlet bee balms was the evolutionary winner (if not both).  'Gardenview Scarlet' is a cross of Monarda didyma X M. fistulosa that was a selection from the Chicago Botanic Gardens Plant Selection Program.  'Jacob Cline', which seems to be the more widely available and better known red cultivar, was a selection of the native Monarda didyma that is highly resistant to Monarda nemesis of powdery mildew.  I've had some trouble determining if the proper spelling of the name is 'Jacob Cline' or 'Jacob Kline', but according to Saul Nursery, which originally introduced it, the proper name is 'Jacob Cline', named for the son of Georgia garden designer Jean Cline.  I suppose they'd know.

'Blue Stocking'
As you would expect from a plant where related species grow naturally in the same area, every Monarda cultivar that I've tried has done well in my Flint Hills garden. It seems to love the full sunlight and dry late summer conditions of the summer, blooming freely and self-seeding or spreading by rhizomes over whatever garden areas I choose to give it. And I've got to tell you, I love removing last years stems in the Spring and weeding this stuff in the summer; stepping on the young plants packed so closely together releases a delectable aroma.  Monarda has a reputation in most printed sources for thriving best in moist environments, but I haven't found extra water to be necessary for established specimens.  Monarda seems to do just fine with occasional droughts, just as long as the drought does not occur in the middle of the flowering period. In fact, withholding a little moisture helps keep these cultivars from growing too tall and then sprawling about. None of the cultivars I grow seem to get mildew, and they provide me the benefits of being deer resistant and attracting bees and butterflies by the thousands. In fact, it is one of the few plant families that I can truly say I've never killed or lost a specimen I've tried.  Now that's what I call adapted to the climate!

'Jacob Cline' in my front landscaping


  1. I found a little pot of Monarda at our local Walmart a couple of late summers ago and planted it amongst my roses and daylilies. The following spring it exploded in red, purple, pink and magenta. The label didn't mention the cultivar and it was obviously mixed. The main thing I noticed about it was the butterflies...they swarmed it and then acted positively drunk. It was pretty funny to watch. It started to take over the garden, though, so I tried to thin it out. All I ended up doing was removing it altogether! I'll never forget those crazy butterflies, though. Sincerely, Texas Anonymous

  2. Jacob Cline is the first monarda i've ever planted, this spring. When i purchased it with new growth it was lime green, which I like. It has resolved to regular green and the grasshoppers love it for some reason. probably stressed. like it though. planted with tall coreopsis.


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