Monday, July 2, 2012

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The Fireworks Flower

Coral Reef bee balm
Monarda didyma 'Coral Reef'

Fireworks are everywhere this time of year. They're the ultimate celebration of summer, an explosion of color in the night sky.

So I was a bit puzzled a few years back when my son said he really liked our "fireworks flowers." I had no idea what he was talking about.

Imagine my surprise when he took me to the front of our house and pointed to the Raspberry Wine bee balm (Monarda didyma 'Raspberry Wine').  There were more than enough flowers for a bouquet as well as the bees and hummingbirds, so we took some of the "fireworks" inside.

The name has stuck ever since at our house.

One of monarda's many common names actually is "firecracker flower" according to an online search. I always think of a firecracker though as being loud and obnoxious. Fireworks, now fireworks are pretty. And these flowers can be very pretty when in bloom.

Monarda more often is called bee balm or Oswego tea. The latter name is a reference to the Oswego tribe of western New York. Many Colonists apparently used monarda leaves after the Boston Tea Party as a way to protest the British tax on East Indian tea. And yes, it does attract bees so keep that in mind when choosing a location.

Bee on Raspberry Wine bee balm
A bumblebee on Monarda didyma 'Raspberry Wine'

This native plant is a great way to attract pollinators to your garden. It's hardy from zones 4 to 9 and generally grows about 2 to 4 feet, with a spread of about the same size. Two new introductions, Petite Wonder and Petite Delight, are smaller at about 18". Monarda generally flowers in July for me, although it's much earlier than usual this year due to the extremely warm weather.

Its flowers come in white, pink, red, rose and purple. The leaves, when rubbed, have a smell that can only be described as "spicy."

The biggest concern with monarda usually is mildew. I've found the plant definitely needs at least six hours of sun to help ward off the white stuff. Good air circulation helps as well.

Many of the newer varieties have been bred to be more mildew resistent. This year has been so hot and dry in the Chicago area that mildew hasn't been a problem anywhere in my garden. There have been many summers, however, when my monarda wasn't so lucky.

The best thing to do in such cases is to cut the plant back to the new foliage near the roots. You also may have to do this if the foliage starts looking ratty once the plant has finished blooming. That's why I originally put Raspberry Wine toward the back of my border. That way it will be hidden from view if I have to cut it back.

Gardenview Scarlet monarda
Monarda didyma 'Gardenview Scarlet' in the garden

Be sure to give monarda lots of room to spread. As a member of the mint family, it's usually pretty vigorous. I think it actually looks better in a drift. And don't worry if it gets too big for its original location. It usually spreads by underground runners and I've found the new plants are easy enough to remove.

As you may have guessed from my comments above, I'm usually a bit of a pyro around Independence Day. Given the current drought, I think I'm going to have to limit my fireworks this year to "fireworks flowers." Maybe not as exciting, but much, much safer.

By Karen Geisler

Have a great Fourth of July!

Closeup Coral Reef' monarda flower



  1. I also love Monarda. I have 'Raspberry Wine' and 'Claire Grace', a mildew-resistant purple variety. A related plant I grow is Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), which has smaller lavendar flowers. It does better in dryer conditions than Monarda didyma varieties.

  2. Does monarda fistulosa spread more than the didyma? I've been thinking of trying it, especially since it's so dry this year.

  3. I love Monarda too and have problems with mildew every summer it seems. Raspberry Wine has been the exception in my garden. So far it has not developed any mildew.

  4. Fireworks flowers. Beautiful. Leave it to an engaged child to call a flower by such a perfect name. Alas, around Connecticut there may not be enough summer moisture to cause mildew this year.

    All best to you, Karen.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. We've finally gotten some rain here today but not enough to break the drought. Will try to send some your way.