Spotlight Columns

Grow For It! Marvelous Monardas

By From page B2 | November 08, 2017

Maria Wong White
UCCE Master Gardener of El Dorado County

There is a plant in my garden that I’m very happy with, and I’d like to tell you about it. Monardas, also commonly called Bee Balm, have so many excellent attributes:

  • A long bloom time from late spring until mid-summer.
  • Massively attractive to many beneficials, particularly bees and hummingbirds.
  • Easy to grow.
  • Works well as a cut flower on sturdy long stems.
  • This plant is a perennial, which means it will return and rebloom over the years.
  • Named varieties are readily available from both mail-order catalogs and local nurseries.
  • Monardas are considered deer-resistant.

When planning a new flower border last year, my wish list included much of the above. In my El Dorado Hills neighborhood I see a lot of Spanish lavender and sturdy shrubs in front yards. We have deer munching about and my aspirations for a cottage-style profusion of color, fragrance and blossoms had to include plants that look good but don’t necessarily taste good.

Monardas are native to North America and are found in the eastern United States and Washington and Oregon. They are not native to California and, given our dry summers, do need regular water to look good. In the winter they will die back.

Last spring we put a few 4-inch pots of Monarda didyma “Gardenview Scarlet” in garden soil amended with several inches of commercial compost. Our irrigation provides water via in-line tubing and not a lot happened to those plants that first year. This year, in early spring, it was apparent that monardas, a member of the Lamiaceae family, which includes the mints, shares a common mint attribute … it spreads. Oh boy, from 4-inch plants came runners that spread maybe 2 feet in all directions. Yippee! Who doesn’t love bitty plants that give a big bang for the buck? I’ve read that monardas will spread, but is not considered invasive. In another year or two I can start dividing and either replant in bare spots or give some divisions away.

The blooms are available in shades described as red, scarlet, violet, pink, purple and white. I’ve seen mostly the scarlet side of reds but witnessing how easy they’re to grow, I may look to other color varieties in the catalogs. The flower is difficult to describe other than as “unusual,” “striking” and “uniquely shaped.”

As these are in the mint family, it’s easy to describe the fragrance as “minty.” I’ve yet to try the leaves in an herbal tea, but it’s nice to know it’s possible. The blossoms are big balls of color and last until the plant suddenly looks leggy. I saw many stems and blooms on my plants and, if inclined, I could have had weeks of cut flowers. Instead, bees had a blast around my monardas and their buzzing filled the air and my heart. Hummingbirds also checked in and stuck around. Powdery mildew can be a problem, but I didn’t get hit. If I had, I’d try to improve the air circulation with some thinning.

Monardas are a herbaceous perennial. Their stems feel soft, not woody, and are easy to trim. A few weeks ago my plants started to look finished for the season so I cut them back hard, to the ground. I now see ample new growth emerging. Cold weather is approaching and I expect this new growth will go to sleep and reemerge next spring. I should have just dead-headed and waited for a repeat bloom, but as I mentioned, the stems were looking leggy. I should plan to put something shorter in front before next spring.

Monardas grow between 30 inches and 4 to 5 feet in height, depending on the variety. They’re commonly included in plant lists suitable for cottage-style gardens. As these plants can tolerate light shade, they also work in a woodland setting. Despite their spectacular appearance, they’re singularly easy to manage. As for deer, well … they have not been interested. I saw what they have tasted in my garden, but the big red blooms were left alone.

Don’t miss the Master Gardeners’ public education classes. The Art of Growing Succulents will be held on Nov. 8 at the Cameron Park Community Center. Saturdays with Barry continues on Nov. 11 at the Sherwood Demonstration Garden in Placerville.  Gardening in the Foothills will be held on Nov. 18 at the El Dorado County Government Center hearing room in Building C in Placerville. Classes are 9 a.m. to  noon, except for Barry’s, which runs till 11 a.m.

UCCE Master Gardeners of El Dorado County are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at the office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. For more information about public education classes and activities visit the UCCE Master Gardeners of El Dorado County website at Sign up to receive online notices and e-newsletter gardener e-news. You can also find them on Facebook.

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