Friday, August 28, 2009

Favorite plant of the day: Bee balm

Every summer the bee balm (right) makes an impression.

We've had several visitors to sillydoggarden the past few weeks and the bee balm invariably has been among the plants to generate the most comments. I grow one kind of bee balm, Monarda didyma 'Raspberry Wine'.

A bee sips nectar from a blossom. The plant is a favorite of bees and hummingbirds. The plant apparently gets its moniker because the buds (lower right) resemble raspberries.

There are others -- red, purple and pink, tall and short -- but for me none can compare to 'Raspberry Wine'. The plant grew respectably in a semi-shaded location but really came into its own when I moved it to the east side of the house where it gets a half-day or more of sun and decent soil. Unlike some other bee balms, this one is labeled as being resistant to powdery mildew and I can vouch for its vigor. I don't think I've ever had a mildew infestation in more than a decade of growing this plant.

The Monarda genus is named after Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish physician who wrote "Joyfull Newes out of the New Found Worlde'' (translated by John Frampton, 1580). Monardes never went to America but studied the effects of medicinal plants from the New World in a botanical garden in Seville, according to the digital library of Vanderbilt Medical Center. Sounds like a fun way to make a living to me.

The plant also is known as Oswego tea; American Indians used its leaves to brew a tea for pleasure and to treat digestive ailments. It became popular among the colonists and was drunk instead of black tea during the period of the Boston Tea Party. I've never tried making tea from my plants; I suspect there would be differences in flavor among the species.

I tend to grow things tight. Here, an Oriental lily is tucked in among the bee balm stems.

Bad-hair day? No way. Bee balm revels in its shaggy heads.

Gardens are way more than visual. In the spirit of engaging senses other than sight, here is "Why Do You Think They Call It Bee Balm?" (Yes, those are bees that you're hearing.)

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