The Wanderer

Red monarda pops up between day lilies in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Red monarda brightens up pink day lilies (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

They call me the wanderer, yeah, the wanderer, I roam around, around, around” ~ Dion (1961) ~

I remember planting a bright red bee balm, Monarda didyma, over twenty years ago because it was one of the first perennials introduced to my garden. And I remember anxiously awaiting its arrival the next spring, but something very mysterious happened. Instead of coming back in the spot I had planted it, the monarda popped up in other areas that were several feet from the original location. Hmmmmm. I wondered about this curious behavior, then decided I liked the plant enough to allow it some freedom. Many years later, that same plant continues to play hide and seek by showing up in different places between other plants and shrubs in my garden. What’s funny is that I have experimented with other bee balms since then and they don’t have the same wandering tendency, nor are they as long lived as this first specimen appears to be.

Red bee balm mingles with garlic scapes in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Red bee balm mingles with garlic scapes (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Also known as horsemint, oswego tea and bergamot, monarda is a genus of approximately 16 species in the mint (Lamiaceae) family that natively range in North America. Monarda was utilized for centuries by Native Americans to treat minor wounds, upset stomach and mouth infections, but was named for the Spanish botanist, Nicholas Monardes, who wrote about the plant in the late 1500’s. With a flavor combination of spearmint, peppermint and oregano, bee balm is also a natural source of the antiseptic compound thymol, an active ingredient still used in some mouthwash formulas today.

The violet hued Monarda 'Blue Stocking' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The violet hued Monarda ‘Blue Stocking’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Presently, there is a lot more to love about the monarda clan (Monarda didyma & fistulosa) and the many exciting cultivars that are bringing us zone hardy plants (4-9) in fabulous shades of scarlet red and light pink to violet blue and darker purple. Monarda thrives in sun and moist but well-drained soil and depending on the variety can grow from 30 to 48 inches tall, making them a great choice for the center of a flower bed. The slender, serrated leaves grow horizontally from the stem, some are deep green to a slightly fuzzy grey-green. The flower itself is comprised of slender upright and weeping petals that rest atop the stem in a quirky mop-head shape, and are absolutely scrumptious to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Monarda didyma 'Purple Rooster' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Monarda didyma ‘Purple Rooster’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Great strides have been made in developing mildew resistant varieties (the plant’s only downfall) and there are over 50 commercial cultivars with emphasis on more dramatic color choices as well. Although these newer introductions aren’t always as reliable as the original species, the following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit: For the pinks: ‘Beauty of Cobham’, ‘Marshall’s Delight’, and ‘Talud’, for purple: ‘Violet Queen’, and for red: ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ and ‘Squaw’. I am growing the violet hued Monarda ‘Blue Stocking’ and the darker plum Monarda didyma ‘Purple Rooster;’ both have proven to be hale and hearty so far. However, please don’t limit yourself to these options.  If you happen to fall in love with a monarda, take it home and enjoy it along with all the other local critters that will be happy you did~♥


  1. I would LOVE to put some in my garden, can you plant them in the fall?

    • The best times to plant perennials are in the spring and fall. The benefit to fall planting is that many perennials and shrubs are also on end-of-season sales! Good luck and Happy Planting!!

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