Plant Names Tell Their Stories: Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm)
Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm) is a tall native perennial growing in the Morris Arboretum Herb Garden. Monarda is named for Nicolás Monardes (1494–1588), a Spanish physician and botanist. While he never traveled to the Americas, he was able to gain information about herbs from the West Indies by frequenting the Port of Seville (the only commercial riverport in Spain) and talking to motley sources including sailors, soldiers, merchants, friars, and officials; some even brought him seed samples, which he was able to grow in his garden in Seville. From 1565–1574, Monardes published the first American flora, a series of books about new medicines and plants coming from across the Atlantic. His fame was such that in 1753, almost 200 years later, Linnaeus honored him by naming Monarda, a genus endemic to North America, for him.
Didyma means “in pairs,” pointing out that the male reproductive parts (stamens) are paired. This is shown clearly in the botanical illustration (right), emphasizing the value of botanical illustrations and how they can highlight plant features in ways that a single photograph cannot.
Monarda didyma also has a special tie with Philadelphia’s famous botanist, horticulturalist, and explorer John Bartram. In 1743, Bartram was invited go on a peace mission to meet with Iroquois leaders in upstate New York. During this expedition he discovered settlers near Fort Oswego brewing tea with the leaves of Monarda didyma, which was introduced to them by Native Americans, resulting in “Oswego tea” as a common name for the herb. Bartram sent Monarda didyma to England, where it first flowered in 1746; it is now naturalized in Europe. “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf tells this story and many others about native North American plants such as flowering dogwoods, lady’s slipper orchids, sweetgums, and tulip poplars that Bartram sent from Philadelphia to Europe in the 18th century. Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America, is currently free and open to the public.
Monarda didyma is a member of Lamiaceae, the mint family, and has the characteristic square stems, opposite leaves, small colorful flowers with upper and lower lips, and strongly scented foliage. The flower head of Monarda didyma consists of small, unscented, individual carmine red flowers atop leafy bracts, while the scented foliage of Monarda didyma has been likened to that of bergamot orange, a component of Earl Grey tea, explaining “bergamot” as another common name for Monarda didyma.
On your next visit to Morris Arboretum, be sure to check out the Herb Garden (at the base of the Rose Garden); it's filled with annuals and perennials including Monarda didyma, striking for both its tall height and its vibrant red tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees.
Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a left-handed botanical tour guide and freelance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at botanicaltours.weebly.com