Mornings with Monarda

Spotted beebalm with phlox ~ Medina County

Named in honor of 16th century Spanish physician, botanist, and pharmacologist Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), native Monarda species are widespread across Texas.

Monardes himself never traveled to the New World, but Spanish captains engaged in trade with the Americas knew of his interest in plants, and kept him well-supplied with new species. Monardes established a museum in Seville to house his growing collection — the first such museum in Western Europe — and brought the plants’ therapeutic values to the attention of his colleagues.

Drought tolerant, clump-forming members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, Monarda species thrive in sunny areas with dry soil. During a visit to the Texas hill country on May 7-9, I found colonies of both Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) and Lemon Horsemint (M. citriodora) giving clear notice that late spring is turning into summer.

Spotted beebalm ~ Medina County
Lemon horsemint ~ Wilson County
Lemon horsemint with firewheels  ~ Gonzales County


Comments always are welcome.

47 thoughts on “Mornings with Monarda

    1. Firewheels are among my favorites. These are Gaillardia pulchella, but my favorite is Gaillardia amblyodon — the same shape, but a lovely, purer red. I got to see some of those, too — happiness all around.

  1. As you’ve shown us two species, no one can call your view of Monarda mono. Horsemints in Austin are just now coming out, so where you found yours seems slightly ahead. The spotted beebalms in your pictures don’t yet show many of their nominal spots.

    1. I’m sure these profited from that band of rain that stretched across the area south of San Antonio, roughly from Hondo to Pleasanton to Gonzales. They clearly were young plants; there were many less than a foot tall.

      I wondered if the phlox had responded to that rain, as well. In a few areas, Indian paintbrush appeared to have done so. I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing, until I stopped to look and realized there was new growth atop paintbrush that clearly had been in decline.

    1. It’s amazing to read the journals of those early botanists, and even more amazing to ponder how they managed to send their discoveries back and forth across oceans. Their curiosity about the plants (and geology, and land, and peoples) they found here seems boundless. It truly was a ‘new world’ for them.

  2. The bee balm has mostly taken over our wildflower bed. There’s a little corner left for some other things, but otherwise it’s going to be purple city once it starts blooming!

    1. I didn’t realize how many Monarda cultivars there are: so many colors, and even different forms. I’d never seen beebalm with only a single bloom atop its stem until I started poking around. At least the natives I’ve seen all have multiple flowers bunched up on their stem — but they’re all lovely.

  3. I started a few beebalm plants this year and am hoping they will take over in coming years. We shall see! Love the photos!

    1. Your bees and butterflies and such are going to be very happy with you. Even the spiders seem to like them. I found several plants with spiders in residence in the top flower: all those spiky bracts make great anchor points for a web.

  4. When I lived in the city and we bought the house next door I turned the front yard into wildflowers. I would dead head the firewheels every morning and they would bloom all summer. Haven’t been able to get them established out here though I do get a few every year. Not very much monarda around here.

    1. I used to think that temperature was the primary determinant of which plants would show up in a given location, but I’m slowly coming to understand how important things like soil can be. Spotted beebalm can be thick on the west end of Galveston Island; even though those plants seem far removed from the ones I saw in Medina County, both locations have a nice, sandy soil in common. Of course, moisture’s important, too. I’d hoped to find my favorite red/maroon Gaillardia in the hill country, but it was scarce as could be. In 2019, it was everywhere, and gorgeous.

  5. Love that horsemint! I’ve never seen that before.

    It rather reminds me of those multi-level serving trays used at a high tea.

    1. That’s it — or one of those multi-level fountains that always look like they belong in a plaza in Mexico or one of the southwestern states. I’ve looked and looked, and despite being sure I had some photos of the seed heads, I can’t find one. The seed heads will stay through autumn and winter, and that shape really shines once the bloom is gone. They’re great for dried arrangements.

  6. As usual, outstanding photographs! (I think it’s easy to take for granted your photographs of plants and flowers are a matter of simply snapping the shutter release. At least one of us (that would be me!) knows the work involved in obtaining a “good” image.)

    I get excited at seeing Spotted Beebalm not only because I love the plant but know that there will be a myriad of diverse pollinators active around them.

    1. Thanks for those appreciative words about the photos, Wally. A little dollop of luck always helps, but patience plays a role, too. Many of my ‘photo sessions’ are like little workshops arranged around the question, “What would work here?” That top photo, for example, was taken at high noon, in full sun, next to a county road, with sand shining reflecting light as though I was at the beach. It took a while to figure that one out — and maybe two dollops of luck!

      I didn’t see many bees or flies around the Spotted Beebalm; perhaps because the plants seemed young and perhaps hadn’t developed enough to attract them. On the other hand, many had resident spiders at the very top; they’d used the plant structure to hold their webs, and were just lurking around, waiting.

  7. How pretty! And it’s encouraging that they’re thriving so the pollinators will have plenty to eat. I guess you’d better crank up your air conditioning — as I recall, Texas can get mighty hot during the summer months!

    1. We have so much in bloom now that the pollinators ought to be happy as can be. In some of the drought areas, picking are a little slim, but even in the driest areas there still are flowers blooming — it’s just that some of them are a little crowded, like the only restaurant in a tiny town.

      We’re already into deep summertime heat, but like most of my friends, that AC is staying set at 78 or above to save money. I’m so glad I changed apartments; my former one had a western exposure that really heated up in the afternoon. Cooling that thing was a chore.

    1. Another common name is Indian blanket — for obvious reasons. That’s the first name I learned, but after being around people who called them ‘firewheel’ I began using that, instead. Sometimes, I just stick with Gaillardia: especially when I come across solidly colored flowers that are pink, yellow, or red, instead of a combination of colors.

  8. I’m sure I saw gaillardia when I visited TX (San Antonio, San Marcos, a bit of Boerne) years ago, but no monarda. Love the texture of that first shot.

    1. Unless you were here in January or February, I’m sure you saw the Gaillardia, too. They’ll bloom here in every month, but even here I’ve found them to be only occasional in those months. One of the interesting things I learned about beebalm is that cultivars often have single blooms at the top of the stem, rather than these clusters. Here’s some information from a California gardening site.

  9. Interesting how the flowers are tiered, like those pastry servers. Each one has its little ruff of leaves. Do they have a nice scent?

    1. They do have the look of those layered serving trays; I always think of them as milk glass, since that’s what my mother’s was. I didn’t notice any scent from the flowers, but if you crush the leaves, they have an interesting scent, and apparently a flavor that combines peppermint and oregano. They are in the mint family, so that makes sense. I have a friend who dries the leaves for tea.

      This is entirely off-topic, but I bumped into this accidentally this morning, and laughed all the way through.

  10. Lovely pictures of lovely plants, Linda. There is never a shortage of suitable subjects for a naturalist/photographer.

    1. That’s so true, David. Especially at this time of year, the number and variety of subjects can be overwhelming. Every time we focus on ‘this,’ we know we’re missing out on dozens of ‘thats’ — but there’s always tomorrow!

    1. Beebalm is a plant that enjoys growing alongside our roads, so in some areas there are miles of it to be seen. Best of all, it’s willing to grow along less-traveled county roads as well as highways, so there are chances to stop and spend some time with those individual flowers.

    1. As a friend once told me, every photo is result of combining skill, patience, and luck. Only the proportion varies! I’m glad you appreciated these — thank you.

  11. It’s really interesting to hear that Monardas are part of the Lamiaceae family. I was given some seed a long time ago but never sowed them – that may be a good thing because the related deadnettles are a real nuisance here in our dry soil. (The flowers of the deadnettles are held in the same sort of ‘layers’ – easy to see a family resemblance!)

    1. I wasn’t sure what the deadnettles looked like, but the resemblance certainly is clear. Some species have only a single flower atop the stem. I’d thought those all were cultivars, but it seems that some native species have that different form. The growth habits might be different, too. All of them certainly please the pollinators.

  12. For me, the background really makes that first photo. Very nicely composed!

    With these in the mint family, do you know if they are, or have been, used in ways we’d use mint, either for their taste or perhaps medicinal? Or even for their scent, I suppose? I loved the smell of mint (can’t recall what type) when it used to grow in my folks yard, but it usually quickly grew out of control taking over everything else.

    1. I was surprised to see phlox still blooming, and even more surprised to find such richly colored ones. I looked for fields of red phlox all spring without finding them; I certainly didn’t expect to come across them now. Despite being just a little worn, they did make for a nice background.

      Native Americans used beebalm for a variety of ailments. Here’s a more detailed discussion of the plants’ qualities from a trustworthy Texas foraging site. I’ve not noticed any fragrance from the flowers, but crushed leaves do have an interesting, slightly minty smell and taste. I’m not sure these spread as quickly as mint, but they can set up fairly large colonies.

  13. The first time I saw a Monarda species was while driving down a country road in Hadley, the town next to Amherst. Shortly after buying our home we planted a few, M. fistulosa-native and M. didyma-non-native, and they provided us with both floral beauty and hummingbird/hummingbird moth pleasures ( among others) as they visited our plants. Unfortunately they died off, we know not why, but I am planning on planting a few more in their place. We do have spotted beebalm nearby but not in our county.
    Your shots, as always, are lovely and that field/meadow filled with horsemints and firewheels is fantastic.

    1. I saw Monarda along the roads here long before I knew what it was; it’s tall enough that it can be a real eye-catcher. I didn’t realize how many species there are until I began trying to sort out these two native species, and I certainly didn’t realize how many cultivars had been developed for the garden.

      I know almost nothing about gardening, but I did read that Monarda species can fall prey to mildew and such if they’re in shady or dampish spots. The ones I see always are in full sun and often in relatively ‘poor’ soil. They’re described as drought-resistant, too, which probably helps to explain why I found so many in bloom.

      1. Our Monardas were in full sun yet still developed leaf mildew. It didn’t seem to affect the flowering ability though. Must have had some effect on the plant since they have disappeared. I just bought two more yesterday and saw that there are indeed manmade cultivars not only in the everyday garden shops but also in the native plant farm where I was shopping. I think they will still be attractive to the usual suspects but I’d prefer native The bright red ones remind me of this guy.

        1. I don’t know most of the Muppet characters, but that’s a great comparison. From what little I’ve read from gardeners (not just garden shop proprietors!) the pollinatosr seem to favor the cultivars as much as the natives. At the very least, they visit — whether the plants are as nutritious I can’t say. I hope you new ones take root and thrive.

  14. I never thought about mint being drought tolerant but I completely ignore my mint — it’s not in a spot near the hose for watering and then I go away, under the eaves, so it only gets rain that is directional… and yet it grows and spreads. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Monarda.

    1. I’d be willing to bet that some Monarda species is a part of some of the more formal gardens you roam, especially out at Southern Exposure or at the University. There are some varieties that look a little different, but have been bred for marvelous color as well as a somewhat different form, with a single flower atop the stem. You’re sure right about mint being a spreader, and not being particularly picky about conditions. The smell and taste of the lemon horsemint leaves isn’t so strong, but it’s just as pleasant.

    1. Aren’t they fancy? I didn’t realize until I started reading up on them that they prefer drier conditions; that helps to explain why they’re doing so well just now.

  15. My sweetheart has been looking for a bee-balm to grow at the local Ag Museum. I just showed him your picture and told him the spotted type gets my vote!

    1. They’re a wonderful, adaptable plant. I presume our highway department has had a hand in planting them along roadsides; in late spring and summer, they stretch for miles and miles along the roads in east Texas. They do very well on Galveston Island, too, so hot, dry, and sandy suits them just fine.

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