Monarda didyma, known by a number of different common names including bee balm, Oswego tea and bergamot, is native to eastern North America where it typically occurs in bottomlands, thickets, moist woods and along streambanks from Maine to Minnesota south to Missouri and Georgia. It is a somewhat coarse, clump-forming, mint family member that features tubular, two-lipped, bright scarlet-red flowers crowded into dense, globular, terminal flowerheads (to 3-4” across) somewhat resembling unkempt mop-heads. Flowerheads bloom atop 2-4’ tall square stems clad with opposite, ovate to ovate-lanceolate, medium to deep green leaves (3-6” long) with serrate margins. Leaves emit a minty fragrance when bruised or crushed. Each flowerhead is subtended by a whorl of showy, red-tinged, leafy bracts. Long summer bloom extends for about 8 weeks from early/mid-summer to late summer. Plant foliage declines after bloom, particularly if infected with mildew. Attractive to bees, hummingbirds and butterflies, particularly when massed.
The common name of bee balm is in reference to a former use of plant resins to sooth bee stings. Oswego tea is in reference to a former use of plants leaves for tea by the Oswego Indians of New York State. The toothed, aromatic leaves (3-5” long) are still used today for teas and in salads. Wild bergamot is in reference to the purported similarity of the aroma of plant flowers to the bergamot orange. The genus name honors physician and botanist Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588).
Best grown in rich, medium to wet, moisture-retentive soils in full sun to part shade. Prefers rich, humusy soils in full sun, although some afternoon shade is appreciated in hot summer climates. Soil should not be allowed to dry out. Deadhead flowers to prolong summer bloom. Divide clumps every 3-4 years to prevent overcrowding and to control spread of the plant. Provide plants with good air circulation to help combat fungal leaf diseases. Deadhead flowers immediately after bloom to prevent self-seeding. Spreads by rhizomes and self-seeding to form colonies.