While lounging in a hot-pink Adirondack chair at dusk in a friend’s country garden, I watched as an eclipse of hummingbird moths blanketed a large clump of bright raspberry-pink monarda.
Ten years later, I’m still awed by the memory. It may be the main reason that I love monarda in a perennial border. It also was the first time I’d ever seen hummingbird moths. And who knew a group of moths is an “eclipse”?
Monarda — aka bee balm, bergamot, horsemint or Oswego tea — is a pollinator magnet. At times, the plants can be so thick and heavy with bees, butterflies and other insects, as well as real hummingbirds, that shaking the stems won’t dislodge them. It gives new meaning to garden author Elizabeth Lawrence’s famous quote, “The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.”
“Cambridge Scarlet,” “Marshall’s Delight,” “Jacob Cline” and “Raspberry Wine,” are favorite bee balms, and along with newer cultivars, have good resistance to powdery mildew, the bane of bee balms. Leave space between plants for good air circulation and provide at least six hours of direct sun daily to reduce this fungal disease.
Soil should be well-drained, but evenly moist. Water deeply every couple of weeks at the base to avoid dampening foliage. Mulch will help conserve moisture. Fertilizing should be minimal — one application of 10-10-10 fertilizer — in early spring is enough. Otherwise, you’re encouraging green growth, not flowers, and more mildew.
Monarda can be a bully by spreading. Divide every three years when clumps become crowded. Dig and divide in spring. Divide into shoots-and-roots sections and immediately plant in their new digs (that you’ve prepared in advance, of course). After a killing fall frost, trim stems to 2 inches above the soil and remove foliage.
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Here are some varieties to consider:
Mondara punctata — An unusual-looking monarda with double-decker greenish-yellow flowers and mauve bracts that reaches 18 to 24 inches tall.
“Bergamo” — A striking, award-winning bee balm with spires of medium-purple blooms stacked on a single stem.
“Leading Lady Orchid” — New in the “Leading Lady” series, this diminutive orchid bee balm grows 10 to 14 inches tall.
“Purple Rooster” — A royal purple variety, this bee balm reaches 3 feet tall and blooms from early to late summer.
“Balmy Lilac” — New in the “Balmy” series, this compact bee balm is a strong grower with shaggy lilac flowers.