Monarda didyma (Scarlet Beebalm, Oswego Tea)

Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic

Print Version (Legal Size): Monarda didyma (Scarlet Beebalm, Oswego Tea)

The carpenter and bumble bees in this video do not have tongues long enough to gather nectar through the natural opening of the monarda corolla tubes. Instead they gain access to the nectar by piercing the base of the corolla or taking advantage of holes made by other “nectar robbers.” This allows them to bypass the floral reproductive structures and obtain their reward without providing pollination services. Although they still may pollinate the flowers if their bodies contact the anthers and stigmas during foraging, the likely pollinators of this plant are long-tongued hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies.

Video © 2018 Mary Free


This member of the Mint family, native to scattered regions of eastern North America,* grows along stream banks and in thickets and open woods. Its distinctive red flowers attract a variety of pollinators, especially hummingbirds,** and it offers herbal and medicinal benefits.

*In the Mid-Atlantic, it occurs mostly in the western and far eastern counties of PA. It is infrequent in the VA mountains and rare (maybe introduced) in the VA Piedmont. In NoVA, it is found in Arlingotn, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties.
*** Discovered near the Blue Ridge Parkway, M. didyma ‘Jacob Cline’ is considered a natural selection of wild bee balm. In trials, ‘Jacob Cline’ “faired quite well against the dreaded powdery mildew” and was “a major hit” with hummers. [From Mt. Cuba Center Puts Nativars to the Test, 2/6/18]

Monarda didyma, Scarlet Beebalm, Oswego Tea Perennial Height: 2–4 feet Spread: 2–3 feet Bloom Color: Red Characteristics Aromatic, clump-forming, herbaceous perennial Opposite, oval, dark green leaves with reddish veins with minty aroma on square, slightly hairy stems Showy, bright red, tubular flowers with reddish bracts clustered in two-inch terminal heads from May to July (or September if deadheaded) Can colonize by rhizomes and seed Attributes Tolerates clay soil, wet soil, Black Walnut, and rabbits; intolerant of dry soil; powdery mildew can be a serious problem Deer seldom severely damage Ethnobotanical uses; source of antiseptic thymol, ingredients for tea (dried leaves and flower heads), and salad flavoring (fresh leaves); fit for fresh and dried flower arrangements and potpourri Attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees Growing and Maintenance Tips Soil Requirements: Rich, well-drained Light Requirements: Sun, Partial Shade Water Requirements: Moist, Wet Prevent powdery mildew with good air circulation; remove mildew stems at base and place in trash Divide every three years to keep within bounds Use in herb, butterfly, native flower & rain gardens Hardiness: USDA Zones 4-9 Excellent Replacement for Lychnis chalcedonica - Maltese Cross
Learn more about other Mid-Atlantic plants: Tried and True Plant Fact Sheets