Apr 4, 2018 | Featured Web Article

Plant Bee Balm for Birds

A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits a bee balm flower in her search for nectar. Photo by Wikimedia.
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Monarda enhances almost any yard dedicated to attracting birds. It is native to North America, and in the mint family. Garden shops and wildflower books use such names as "bergamot," "bee balm," "Oswego tea," and "horsemint" for the various Monarda species.

Monarda is a genus that includes both annual and perennial species, including about 20 wild, native varieties, and dozens of cultivars. Every ecoregion in North America hosts at least one native Monarda species, although none thrives in dense forests or hot desert shrublands. Monarda plants grow best in sunny spots with moist but well-drained soil. Plants growing in partial shade spread, but produce fewer flowers.

Monarda is used in beds and borders to attract hummingbirds, pollinating insects, and insects that control garden pests. Some Monardas grow as annuals and must be replanted from seed every year. Others grow as perennials, producing clumps of slender rhizomes (underground stems).

Try to find a native variety that has historically grown wild in your part of the continent. It will thrive in your soil and climate with little care, and provide a natural feast for wild birds and pollinating insects.

Flower colors range from pale lavender-white to purple and from pale pinkish-white to deep red, depending on species.

Nectar attracts hummingbirds to the darker red and purple species. Moths favor the paler pink and lavender species. Most bees have short tongues and cannot reach the nectar in the long flower tubes.

As with all mints, the Monarda flower produces a fruit botanically defined as a "nutlet." Various sparrows readily eat the nutlets during winter months, and occasionally goldfinches and redpolls join in the feast. So don't deadhead Monarda! Let the dead flowers stay on the stems to feed birds in winter.

Some native Monarda species include:

  • M. bradburiana, eastern bee balm, native to the mid-Mississippi Valley
  • M. citrioddora, lemon bee balm, lemon-mint, native to the southern U.S.
  • M. clinopodia, white bergamot, basil bee balm, native to the eastern U.S., especially Appalachia
  • M. clinopodoides, basil bee balm, the southern Great Plains, Texas, Louisiana
  • M. didyma, Oswego tea, scarlet bee balm, fragrant balm, mountain mint, native to the eastern U.S., especially Appalachia
  • M. fistulosa, wild bergamot, horse mint, purple bee balm, native across much of the United States and Canada
  • M. media, purple bergamot, found across the eastern U.S. and Ontario


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