Out My Backdoor: Beebalm a Must for Butterfly, Hummer Gardens

Beebalm (Terry W. Johnson)


By Terry W. Johnson

Native wildflowers are rapidly gaining popularity among Georgia wildlife gardeners. Each of these plants has its own unique story as to how it has made the often-difficult transition from the wild to our gardens. One of these plants is beebalm (Monarda didyma).

The tale of how beebalm made the journey from being a plant prized by Native Americans for medicinal purposes to 21st century gardens is as intriguing as the plant is beautiful and beneficial to wildlife.

Our esteem for beebalm began long before the first European colonists set foot in North America. Two groups that were especially fond of beebalm were the peoples of the Oswego and Oneida nations. They used the plant to treat bee stings and a variety of ailments such as digestive disorders and headaches. The Oneidas believed that beebalm was the sixth medicine provided to them by the Creator.

Yet it’s the Oswegos who are given the most credit for passing on the knowledge of the therapeutic value of beebalm to early European colonists. Since the folk remedy was commonly administered as a beverage, it was commonly referred to as Oswego tea. Consequently, long before the first shots were fired at the conflict that led to the American Revolution, beebalm was grown in colonial gardens.

It is also interesting to note that beebalm is purported to have served as a substitute for tea after the infamous Boston Tea Party. Ironically, beebalm was later shipped back to England.

Beebalm remained a valuable perennial herb grown in gardens throughout the Colonial Era (1607–1840). Much later, during the Civil War, Monarda species were used to treat intestinal disorders. Nowadays, beebalm is planted mostly for its beauty and value to wildlife. However, it is still used as an herbal remedy and as seasoning in a variety of recipes.

The plant's unusual flowers are almost breathtaking. Beebalm's scarlet red blooms are arranged in clusters that have a distinctively shaggy appearance. If fact, they do not appear to be anything that would attract a hummingbird or other native pollinator. However, on closer examination you will see that each cluster is comprised of a group of red tubular flowers. And what you cannot see is that each flower is laden with nectar and pollen.

Depending on where it is planted, beebalm grows from 2 to 2 1/2-feet tall and blooms from June until August and even beyond. The blooming period can be extended by deadheading the blooms.

A Swedish Botanist named Peter Kalm was perhaps the first to recognize the importance of beebalm to the ruby-throated hummingbird. In the mid-1700s, Kalm traveled throughout Colonial America. In his book Travels in North America, he commented that out of all flowers, hummingbirds favored Impatiens and the crimson flowers of Monarda.

As for butterflies, swallowtails seem to be drawn to beebalm more than any others. I most often see our state butterfly, the eastern tiger swallowtail, nectaring on the beebalm growing in my yard. Among the other butterflies that nectar at beebalm are fritillaries, whites, and sulphurs.

Moths are also attracted. Beebalm is one of the nectar plants favored by clearwing moths. These day-flying moths are often referred to as hummingbird moths.

Although beebalm is also a favorite of bumblebees, the list of native bees that visit beebalm includes the likes of sweat bees, digger bees, carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees and mason bees.

Beebalm's value to wildlife doesn't end when frost kills the plants in the fall. American goldfinches and sparrows are among the birds that eat the plant's seeds.

Beebalm is grown in gardens throughout the state. It grows in both partial shade and full sun; however, it often does best in gardens that receive full sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. Beebalm prefers moist, rich, acidic soil types.

This perennial has slender rhizomes that grow just below the surface of the ground. As such, they will spread some 2 to 3 feet away from the plants. Once the plants are 3 to 4 years old, the rhizomes can be divided and planted elsewhere. This is best done in spring and fall.

Beebalm can also be grown from seed and from softwood cuttings in late spring. Seeds can be collected just one to three weeks after a plant has finished blooming. Germination of the seeds can be enhanced by exposing them to cool, moist stratification for anywhere from two to three weeks.

It seems that these days most people buy seedlings from nurseries. If you do, I recommend that you purchase beebalm plants propagated in nurseries. This will help ensure that wild populations of beebalm will not be decimated by unscrupulous plant dealers.

A number of hybrids are on the market. However, when you buy one of these cultivars, you stand the chance of purchasing a plant that doesn't produce as much pollen and nectar at a native plant. Often, the hybridization results in a plant that is larger or more colorful than is original form. Yet many hybrids produce little or no nectar and pollen. With that in mind, I suggest you refrain from buying a hybrid until you’ve done some research to determine if it produces significant quantities of pollen and nectar.

Also keep in mind that beebalm has some negatives. Since it spreads, some gardeners have found that it can take over a flowerbed. If you think this might be a problem, plant it in an area dedicated solely to it.

In addition, during periods of hot, moist weather, the plant is susceptible to powdery mildew. You can lessen the chance this will happen by keeping plants pruned to allow the free flow of air around each plant and by planting it in full sun.

I hope that you will incorporate beebalm into your home landscape. If it is properly cared for, it will provide you with beauty and many of your backyard wildlife neighbors with food for years to come.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired DNR program manager and executive director of TERN, the Wildlife Conservation Section’s friends group. Check out past columns, his Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and his book “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.” His columns are also featured at DNR’s blog, under the Conservation tab. Permission is required to reprint a column.