Scarlet bee balm, Monarda didyma, is a pollinator favorite in the garden. The red bloom of bee balm makes it especially attractive to hummingbirds. Red-flowering natives are few, but it is a mid-summer delight to gardeners who like seeing the hustle-bustle of life in the garden. It certainly is hard-working in my garden. Watching the plant for fifteen minutes around 11am on a scorching, hot July day, you can see the activity it draws.
The young, minty shoots are used as a flavoring in vegetable salads, fruit salads and drinks (especially teas), so we use it as well. I can’t say I ever tried bee balm myself, but I do know people who have.
The common name of bee balm stems from the resin found in the plant that could be used for healing and soothing of bee stings. Monarda derives from Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish physician who introduced the North American native to Europe. Didyma refers to the stamens occurring in pairs, translated from Latin.
Scarlet bee balm has nectar-rich flowers that are large yet have no discernible scent. They are pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies, hummingbird moths, and bees. Bee balm does like to be moist, so to be useful to pollinators, it needs these conditions. This brings up a good point too.
Monarda fistulosa is hailed as a popular native plant, which it undoubtedly is, but it is not by any means maintenance free. It needs more than average water to remain useful to wildlife, drying out quickly in the bright sun. If you use the wild species and have continued drought, be assured it will dry up and be useless to wildlife. At a local park’s meadow, I watch this small wild bergamot patch every year dry and shrivel. Sad to see a meadow that used to be bustling with flying pollinators, now almost devoid of pollinators. It’s too pathetic to show too.
Scarlet monarda in general also needs to be divided almost every year in addition to becoming dry in drought. My own garden has this and you can see how dry it is in the images. I water too.
Gardeners have a love-hate relationship with this course-looking plant because it spreads easily by seed or rhizome throughout the garden, not to mention its susceptibility to powdery mildew in humid climates. I often think of giving it the heave-ho since I have it in three locations, but…
…regardless of the reasons to dislike the plant, there is no denying how useful it is to pollinators.
A rather unique thing about the flowers, only those with long tongues get the nectar, or so it was planned. Some bees are notorious nectar robbers. Nectar robbing sweat bees, Carpenter bees, honeybees and bumblebees will chew a hole at the base of the flower. This circumvents the pollen and the plant’s purpose. Monarda compensates as a pollen factory and you often see bees fully coated like shown.