Among the many native plants of North America, there’s one that every summer stuns me with its beauty and its important role in our ecosystems and our lives. In today’s post, I want to share some information about a lovely group of plants local to right here, which can be easily grown in our green spaces, and which one can observe flowering right now: beebalms!
What are beebalms?
Beebalms are a group of plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) that belong to the genus Monarda. This genus is restricted to North America and includes several species. In Maryland, there are at least four species present, one of which (M. clinopodia, the basil beebalm) is currently listed as requiring conservation actions (listed as Vulnerable). The other three species (M. didyma, M. fistulosa, M. punctata) appear to be relatively common in the region and are easy to grow in our green spaces. All species reach about 2 to 5 feet in height and are great additions to flower beds because of their beauty but also because they act as biodiversity magnets. For example, the genus Monarda has been recognized as supporting at least three rare and specialist bee species in the Eastern USA, and attracting a lot of natural enemies of pests, meaning that providing these floral resources can support the populations of bee species that depend on the pollen of these plants for their nutrition and help us naturally control pests in our green spaces. And last but not least, later in the season their fruits support birds and, if left uncut, their stems offer overwintering spaces for arthropods.
Scarlet beebalm (M. didyma)
This is a perennial species with dark red flowers that bloom during the summer. As for all beebalms, the flower heads are formed by many elongated flowers that harbor abundant nectar. The plant is incredibly attractive to pollinators, acting as a magnet to bees of all sizes, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Besides its great support to pollinators and other arthropods, this species (along with M. fistulosa) has medicinal properties, which have been identified and used since immemorable times by Native Americans. The very name of beebalm is even related to these uses, since the plant can be used to produce poultices that help with skin affections, including bee stings. Preparations of the plant are also traditionally used to help with digestive and respiratory issues. Finally, as for many mint plants, this species is rich in essential oils, which makes it a good one to flavor foods like one would do with oregano and mint. You can learn more about how to grow this species, along with other facts on this USDA information sheet.
Scarlet beebalms display red flower heads that offer abundant nectar to a large variety of vertebrate and invertebrate pollinators. Photos: A. Espíndola, J. Schneid (CC)
Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa)
With a floral structure similar to the scarlet beebalm, this perennial species has pink-colored flower heads. The flowers are also favorites of pollinators, and the whole plant supports both adult and larval stages of many pollinators. While the flowers are regularly visited by bees, butterflies, moths, wasps and hummingbirds, other parts of the plant host several caterpillars, further supporting moth populations. From a human-use perspective, the plant has also been traditionally used by Native Americans. Its tissues contain a lot of essential oils, making them have a flavor much stronger than that of its cousin the scarlet beebalm. The plant has been used to treat respiratory, digestive and skin affections, and many of these uses were actually taught to European settlers by Native Americans across the continent. You can learn much more about this species (including how to grow it and more!) on this USDA sheet.
Spotted beebalm (M. punctata)
The flowers of this species are delicate and stunning in their own unique way. Each of the flowers forming the flower head displays several colors, with pink, white, yellow, and spotted sections. This difference in colors along the flowers gives the impression that the head has different “levels”. As for its other cousins, spotted beebalms are also very popular among insects: they attract large numbers of pollinators and in particular predatory wasps, which can assist in improving pest control in our green spaces. Other parts of the plant also support the development of caterpillars of several moths. The plant has also a long tradition of medicinal uses in North America, likely due to its high essential oil contents. Parts of the plant, both individually and in combination with other plant species, were and are still used to treat colds, improve digestion, and reduce fever. You can learn more about this species on this USDA information sheet.
Basil beebalm (M. clinopodia)
This species grows a bit taller than the other Maryland species mentioned above and displays flower heads with lightly-spotted white or light purple flowers. In Maryland, this species currently has a population conservation status of “Vulnerable”, meaning that it is considered for it to have a high risk of going extinct in the wild. The species is associated with forests and usually grows on its edges. As for the other species treated here, this plant is very attractive to many types of pollinators and for that reason acts as a great plant to support them. However, compared to the other species, this one produces less abundant nectar and appears to be a particular favorite of bumblebees. Because of its conservation status in our state, if considering cultivating this species, it is of utmost importance to make sure to know the source of the seed/plants used in your plantings, so as to make sure that the plant material was obtained from sustainable sources that do not harm wild populations.
By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.
Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!