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Monarda fistulosa – Wild Bergamot

Wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, is an ecologically important native perennial.

Native to large swaths of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, wild bergamot has soft lavender flowers on healthy foliage. Monarda fistulosa starts blooming as summer begins and the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love it.

Many of us are familiar with the more commonly sold bee balm cultivars, Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’ being the most successful and deservedly so. Jacob Cline has deep red flowers and, importantly, is almost completely mildew resistant. Wild bergamot’s lavender-pink flowers are smaller than Jacob Cline’s, maybe 2″ across at most.

I suspect the smaller size of the flowers is why you don’t see wild bergamot offered commercially more often. Nonetheless, to me, it is the most beautiful Monarda of all.

An excellent choice for naturalizing, wild bergamot will reseed and colonize areas where it is planted. It has somewhat of a reputation for aggressiveness, although it is easily pulled up. There are plants that will dominate and a space and once established are impossible to get rid of. Wild bergamot is not at all a problem in this regard. Monarda fistulosa is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae.

It is winter hardy zones 3 through 9.

Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds find wild bergamot irresistible.

Wild bergamot is fairly drought tolerant, deer resistant, not picky about soil quality, and native to much of North America. You can plant Monarda fistulosa around black walnuts, as it tolerates their root toxicity. Many people love it as much as I do.

Regarding drought tolerance, if conditions are dry you will see the lower leaves yellow and drop in response. This is a normal response to dry conditions. The good news is mildew has a hard time getting going without moist conditions.

Wild bergamot can get ratty looking after flowering. If it becomes a visual distraction, cut it back to 6″-12″.

Powdery mildew is a problem with many Monarda species.

Verbena bonariensis is also susceptible by the way. Monarda fistulosa has fairly good resistance to powdery mildew in my experience. I mention Verbena bonariensis because while I have no problem banning roses and Monardas susceptible to powdery mildew from my garden, I am a sucker for tall verbena.

What I’ve found watching the Verbena bonariensis is humid conditions, wet leaves, and too much shade are the triumvirate of doom. I see Verbena growing all over the place with no powdery mildew and it is always uniformly sunny where it grows well.

The University of Vermont has a good write-up about phlox and monarda and the conditions that promote powdery mildew in these species. Note that spraying does very little to prevent powdery mildew and who wants to spend precious time spraying chemicals around the garden anyway? Your best option is to select tough cultivars and plant them in areas where they can fend for themselves.

Wild bergamot grows 2′-4′ tall. The colony photographed here reached almost to my chest. Monarda tends to grow on tall single stems that can get knocked over during hard summer rain. Resist the urge to stake it as it will spring back in a day or so.

You may find some crazily bending stems as the plant begins growing back towards the sun. I’ve learned to accept it as part of nature’s charm and move on.

The leaves are highly aromatic

Like tomato and salvia leaves, Monarda fistulosa’s leaves have a distinctively aromatic bent. I love it. None of these plants have the perfumey fragrance of roses or gardenias, but the earthy spiciness is so grounded just touching my fingers to the leaves reminds me I’m alive.

The leaves are gray-green and sometimes used for making tea. The leaves are also where the powdery mildew appears, almost never fatal but a depressing sight nonetheless. Thankfully, Monarda fistulosa is mostly resistant. I remember years ago these dreadful Monardas would be offered for sale, lots of gaudy flowers and lots of powdery mildew. Most of those cultivars have disappeared from nurseries.

I have images that I shudder even placing online although I tell myself someday I’ll create a write-up on powdery mildew and Monarda and use those photographs I’ve shoved under the bed.

More information:
Winter hardiness zones: Zones 3-10

Native Distribution:

Genus/speciesMonarda fistulosa, Monarda fistula
Common name(s)wild bergamot, wild bee balm
Of notebeautiful soft flowers make this perhaps the most beautiful of all the Monarda – drought tolerant – easy to grow – attracts bees, hummingbirds, butterflies
Fall colorinsignificant
Water requirementsdrought tolerant, average
Soil qualitywell-drained, average
Suggested use(s)cottage gardens, meadows, mixed borders/perennial beds, native collections, naturalized, woodlands
Hardiness zone(s)3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Typeherbaceous perennial
Deer resistantyes
Deciduous or evergreendeciduous
Flower colorlavender, pink
Bloom periodsummer
Exposurefull sun, afternoon shade

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