Scientific Name: Monarda punctata L. & Monarda fistulosa L.
Common Name(s): M. punctata – Spotted Bee Balm, Spotted Horsemint, Horsemint
M. fistulosa – Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot
Photos by Kayla Sayre, Bella Vista POA Fisheries & Water Quality Sr. Technician
Both spotted bee balm and wild bergamot are in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and share the same genus (Monarda). Species in the genus Monarda are characterized as herbaceous plants with slender, serrated, lanceolate leaves. Lanceolate leaves are shaped like the tip of a lance where they are long and wider in the middle with a tapering point. Similarly, these leaves are oppositely arranged around a square stem. Flowers in the genus Monarda have tubular flowers with bilateral symmetry where the plants are the same from left to right.
The morphology of the flowers distinguishes spotted bee balm from wild bergamot. Spotted bee balm has bracts associated with their layered flower heads. Bracts are specialized leaves that are associated with the flowerhead rather than the stem. The bracts on spotted bee balm are green when first emerging then turn to purple, pink, white or yellow, but most often are purple or pink in the wild. In between the bracts are yellow petals with spots that are maroon. In comparison, wild bergamot does not have bracts or layers, but instead has a ragged pom-pom shaped head that can be lavender, pink, or white, but most often is lavender in the wild. Wild bergamot is slightly taller, reaching heights between 2 and 5 feet while Spotted Bee Balm reached heights between 1 and 3 feet.
Spotted bee balm and wild bergamot share ranges in the South, excluding Florida, and the Northeast. In the Midwest, their ranges overlap in Colorado. In the West, their ranges overlap in New Mexico. Neither species is native to Nevada or California.
Spotted bee balm and wild bergamot can grow in a variety of conditions. They are both found in prairies, meadows, ditches, and plains. Spotted bee balm is also found in forest edges, dry woods, and marshes. Wild bergamot can do well in disturbed habitat, so can be seen along roadsides in Bella Vista. Spotted bee balm is a bit more tolerant to a variety of soil conditions doing well in clay, acidic, sand and loam soil that is well drained. Wild bergamot does well in dry and somewhat sandy soils. Both species can tolerate full sun, but spotted bee balm prefers conditions with part shade. Both do well in medium to low water conditions, so are ideal for hot dry summer weather. Once these species are established, they can thrive in most soil and water conditions.
Both spotted bee balm and wild bergamot are native plants that attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. In fact, both are of high nutritional value to adult monarch butterflies. Similarly, both are of special value for bumble bees which are declining. Spotted bee balm is also a species of value for honeybees. If you would like to attract butterflies to your yard and raise a resilient plant species, consider spotted bee balm and wild bergamot. Cultivation of both species is easy, and they spread rapidly once established. Wild bergamot is a deer resistant flower which is important in Bella Vista with its high deer population.
The leaves of both plants can be dried and steeped into a tea with wild bergamot having a minty taste and spotted bee balm having a taste closer to oregano or thyme. Historically, both species were used as medicinal herbs and are fragrant plants since they are in the mint family. Wild bergamot was crushed and used as a perfume, as well as to treat wounds, dental infections, and gastrointestinal problems by Native Americans. Similarly, spotted bee balm was used to treat upset stomachs, diarrhea, neuralgia, and kidney disease before modern medicine. Current research has been conducted on chemicals found in both plants. Wild bergamot contains carvacrol, an antioxidant which researchers found to have antimicrobial properties. Similarly, some research has shown carvacrol to suppress E. coli and Salmonella. Spotted bee balm contains thymed which has both antiseptic and antifungal properties.
In Bella Vista, wild bergamot is very common along roadsides and will bloom late June to early July. Spotted bee balm is common along forest edges and will bloom in the middle of July. In fact, we have a spotted bee balm plant near the Fisheries and Water Quality Lab. Both species make perfect garden plants which will attract butterflies and help declining monarch butterflies. Both species can be very resilient, so take care to allow them lots of room to grow into. They are also good species to plant around decks or back porches as they help repel mosquitoes.