Not only is Monarda fistulosa a beautiful native wildflower, it is a top plant for attracting pollinators. It’s flowers attract many butterflies, moths, bumble bees, soldier beetles, hummingbird moths and many other beneficial and beautiful insects. I love sitting in the spring sun and watching the activity around a large clump of this bee balm. If you want to see our native pollinators at work, look for a clump of Monarda fistulosa in bloom. If you want a hardy perennial in your garden that attracts hummingbirds, beneficial insects and has the added benefit of a wonderful aroma and beauty through multiple seasons, it would be hard to find a better candidate than Monarda fistulosa.
Latin Name/Common Name- According to Stern’s Dictionary of Plant Names, Monarda fistulosa was named for Nicholas Monardes (1493- 1589). He was a physician and botanist from Seville. Fistulosa means hollow or pipe-like and describes both the hollow tube of the corolla and the hollow stem.
As is often the case, this plant has many common names- Wild bergamot, bee balm, and oswego tea. Bergamot refers to the fragrant leaves. Bees love this plant, hence the name Bee balm. The leaves have been used for both medicinal and culinary purposes over the centuries, especially for tea. They have even been used for perfume.
Bloom Color- Flower color on Monarda fistulosa varies between a soft lavender and bright pink.
Description- Opposite leaves are arranged on a single stem which branches multiple times near the top of the 2 to 3 foot plant. The stem is green to purple (in sun) and varies from hairless to slightly pubescent near leaf origins. Varying from light to dark green, the lanceolate leaves have serrated margins and are slightly pubescent to hairless. The plant is easy to identify even before blooming by the scent. Lightly squeeze a leaf and you’ll smell a pleasing scent similar to oregano.
The large bloom consists of many small flowers. Each flower opens into an upper and lower lip. The stamens protrude from the upper lip and a notched lower lip functions as a support for insects. The flowers open progressively from the center toward the edges of the flower head, gradually leaving a bald spot in the center.
Stands of Monarda fistulosa are lovely as well in autumn as they remain erect with brown seed heads.
The plant tends to grow in clumps and spreads through rhizomes as well as seeds.
Bloom Time- Monarda fistulosa usually begins blooming on Ozarkedge in mid-May and lasts until about the end of June.
Habitat- Able to thrive in both sun and part- shade, Monarda fistulosa can be found in a variety of habitats. On Ozarkedge, I find it in both woodland edges as well as the meadow.
What’s Growing Nearby? The flower associations of Monarda fistulosa depend on the habitat. At the woodland edge, it is seen with Verbena canadensis, Lobelia spicata, Ruellia strepens and Matalea decipiens.
In the meadow or prairie habitat, it is often found with Pycnanthemum pilosum, Rosa setigera, Rudbeckia hirta, Ruellia humilis and Asclepias tuberosa.
Endangered List- Monarda fistulosa is native in nearly all of North America- excluding California and Florida. It’s a hardy plant that spreads easily. The only listing on the USDA Conservation site is for Rhode Island where it is considered Historical.
NatureServe, however, is more up to date and shows Monarda fistulosa as Critically Imperiled in Utah and Delaware and Vulnerable in Quebec. As with many of our native wildflowers, it is Not Ranked in most of the United States.
Interesting Tidbits- This is one of the best forage plants for bumble bees as the flowers remain open continuously throughout the day. It is the larval host plant for at least 2 moths- Hermit Sphinx moth (Lintneria eremitus) and Snout Moths (Pyrausta generosa). The black sweat bee is a specialist bee for Monarda fistulosa. Specialist bees make up only about 20% of bees (the rest are called generalist bees). Specialist bees can only obtain food from one or two (three at most) types of plants. If you want to learn more about Pollinators and their importance in our ecosystem, I recommend the excellent book by Heather Holm, Pollinators of Native Plants.