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MONARDA BRADBURIANA - BRADBURY'S MONARDA - EASTERN BEEBALM

MONARDA BRADBURIANA - BRADBURY'S MONARDA - EASTERN BEEBALM

Posted by Radovan Hajek on 3rd Feb 2022

"Monarda bradburiana is one of my personal “top ten” plants. It’s a dramatically underused plant with a (currently) small following, a following it certainly does not deserve. Most Monarda you’re likely familiar with have a high susceptibility to diseases like Powdery Mildew, leaving them totally defoliated and 100% ugly around July and August. Monarda bradburiana on the other hand is still boasting a mass of deep green, glossy leaves as of the first of October, soon to turn a deep, rich burgundy as temperatures cool."

Roy Diblik, Plantstudios

Louis Sullivan Gateway Arch at The Art Institute, Chicago, 2009, matrix planting with many grasses, Allium starting and Salvia nemorosa cv. in the background ⒸPlantstudios

Not only the father of American naturalistic planting, Roy Diblik (Northwind Nursery, Wisconsin) noticed undeniable beauty and excellent qualities of this North American wildflower.

Piet Oudolf, famous Dutch landscape designer and plantsman, classifies this Monarda as one of his 100 most favorite plants (which in Piet's wide assortment of used plants, is remarkable).

Piet's planting of Monarda bradburiana with Allium atropurpureum, Amsonia 'Blue Star', Amsonia 'Blue Ice' and "Salvia nemorosa river" in Lurie Garden, Chicago. He also used it in one of his latest designs in Delaware Botanic Gardens

gardeninacity

Perennial Diva, Stephanie Cohen, used Monarda bradburiana as a favorite plant especially in meadow applications as well as Larry Weaner. The potential of this plant couldn't escape Canadian designer Tony Spencer, The New Perennialist, nor to designers like Benjamin Vogt, Monarch GardenKelly Norris or Thomas Rainer and Caludia West (Phyto Studio). It is also a favorite perennial of garden designers Austin Eisheid (Chicago area) and Andrew Marrs (Bloomington, IN).

Austin Eisheid's Design, private garden, Ioawa. M. bradburiana with some hardy Geraniums, Allium, Amsonia 'Blue Ice' and Nepeta x faasenni starting.  ⒸAustin Eisheid Garden Design

Bradbury's Monarda, private garden designed and planted by Andrew Marrs, Bloomington. Together with Paeonia 'Kansas' (btw very leaf-disease resistant one), Salvia nemorosa 'Blue Hill' and 'Maynight' ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

Private garden designed by Andrew Marrs, Bloomington. Eastern Bee Balm with green spikes of Liatris spicata, Salvia nemorosa 'Maynight' , Geranium 'Rozanne' , Penstemon digitalis, Scabiosa columbaria 'Butterfly Blue' and purple-leaved Cotinus coggygria (shrub) ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

Private garden designed by Andrew Marrs, Bloomington. Monarda bradburiana, Allium atropurpureum, Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red' and Salvia nemorosa cultivars ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

Monarda bradburiana in Austin Eischeid design with Salvia nemorosa cultivar, Allium christophii, Dianthus carthusianorum and Zizia aurea (yellow, Carrot family plants in the back) ⒸAustin Eischeid Garden Design

Three Oaks Garden, designed, planted and maintained by Kelly Norris, Iowa. M. bradburiana with Amsonia 'Short Stop', Erigeron sp. and Penstemon digitalis cultivar ⒸKelly Norris

EXCEPTIONAL

There are not many wildflowers (straight species), that would have the qualities of good, let me correct myself, great garden plants. So what makes this plant so unique? 

First, this plant offers nearly all year interest : it usually sprouts with very dark stems and leaves. Then quickly develops into it's full size to bloom very early in first half/mid May to beginning of June, which is about 4 weeks before the majority of Monarda hybrids or other botanical species like Monarda fistulosa or Monarda didyma! 

So, combining it with other Monarda, you can extend the monarda season significantly.

Don't forget - aromatic leaves deter deer and rabbits, even in overpopulated areas by deer, these plants are safe.

M. bradburiana is native to open rocky woods and savannas, so it is black walnut (juglone) tolerant and has some tolerance to shade. 

It does fine in half shade, but our experience is it’s even better in full sun - more upright, sturdy, better blooming and with better fall foliage. It's one of the plants that might be, in nature, pushed to it's niche - drier half shade or light drier shade, because there's less competition. 

It's adaptable to any soil (shallow, rocky, sandy, loam, clay), that is not waterlogged. Average moisture to drier conditions are preferred. 

It is definitely highly resistant to heat, humidity and drought. I've never seen any scorched or wilted leaves on the plants.

Hardiness zones 5 to 9. Zoom in for more detailed presence of it's native range on the USDA map.

As an example, this monarda grows only in a few southwestern counties in Indiana.

What makes this wildflower amazing is the right size of 1.5-2' tall and wide mounds, slowly spreading and mostly staying in clumps with a somewhat ground covering growth. The plants are not too big or too small and play a role of filling in the front or center of a flower bed.

Eastern Beebalm also doesn't seed much, because the seeds are trapped in the deep tubes of the seed heads.

Due to the early blooming time, it is also a "bridge plant" between spring and summer (similar to peony, bearded Iris, Penstemon digitalis, etc.). It blooms when spring perennials are over and before the summer flowers come up.

Oh, one more thing : they are long-lived and reliable plants!

The only disadvantage I can see as a grower is that young plants are sensitive to excessive moisture, so you can lose lots of newly potted plants because the potting soil doesn't dry out fast enough. More mature plants in pots are trouble free.


DAILY LIFE WITH MONARDA BRADBURIANA

Lets have a look at plants in our front garden - these were observed for most of the season.

March 25th - Monarda bradburiana usually emerges very dark red-brown. In the picture are 4 plants - all seedlings.  Notice the variability in spreading - the plant on the left upper corner is later and loose spreading, while the plant in the right bottom corner is a tighter clump. Selecting the best seedlings for propagation may be a good idea. ⒸUS Perennials

April 5th - new leaves emerge dark. Plants in our front garden at US Perennials nursery (the bed is mulched with sand). ⒸUS Perennials

May 15th - the same plants in the same garden, flowers are opening. The biggest seedling has nice dark stems and veins. This plant is not bred, this is the wild form. Notice the seedling on the far left is hardly budding.  ⒸUS Perennials

May 19th - full bloom. Despite the different sprouting, all 4 of the plants in this group look quite uniform. Notice the other flowering perennials - Allium christophii, bearded irises, Dianthus cruentus, Verbena cannadensis 'Anna's Pink'  and Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna'. Other perennials that overlap are Peonies, Penstemon digitalis (and hybrids) along with some Amsonia ⒸUS Perennials

6th of June - the last petals.The blooming is over and tall monarda (hybrids and M. didima and M. fistulosa) will start in 3-4 weeks. Newly developed seedheads have green-pinkish hue until they turn light brown and later dark brown. In the background is Salvia miltiorrhiza  ⒸUS Perennials

28th of July - seedheads are dry and dark brown. This is the look for the remainder of the season. Other flowering perennials in the picture are Lillium 'Cassablanca', Echinacea tennesseensis and grass Calamagrostis x 'Karl Foerster'. The seed heads stay on the plant until you cut them back. The foliage is stable, without mildew, regardless of humidity or whatever weather follows. ⒸUS Perennials

November 1st - cooler night temperature brings awesome red to burgundy-red fall color and the leaves persist on the plant usually until December. (this Monarda looks like evergreen or semi-evergreen). ⒸUS Perennials

...AND SOME MORE FALL PICTURES (not from our garden) :

Beginning of September ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

End of October ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

November 15th - fall color of Monarda bradburiana  ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

End of November ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

Early December - Frosty morning ⒸAustin Eischeid Garden Design

Late December ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design

POLLINATORS

Bumblebee on Monarda bradburiana. Many sources describe Bradbury's Monarda as highly attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. But you don't see many pollinators on any of  the pics above, so this is surely not a "pollinator magnet" like some other monardas can be.  I observed mostly only several species of bumblebees; okay, maybe a butterfly or two.  It’s possibly too early for the majority of butterflies. ⒸAndrew Marrs Garden Design


FLOPPING

Bradbury's Monarda scored 3.6 points out of five points in Mt. Cuba's Monarda Trials (2014-2016). The flopping was the only reason for lower rating.

Some gardeners complain about flopping too. The picture above shows Monarda bradburiana in it's first year after planting - it does sprawl or flop some, but other perennials can do the same. The second year, plants (usually) grow upright. What may cause the flopping are too many nutrients or too much organic matter (heavily mulched). The best is to use leaf compost mulch and "mulch with plants", so plant more densely. Inorganic mulch like sand or gravel is possible too. ⒸUS Perennials

Sprawling-flopping Monarda bradburiana ⒸSam Bahr, Maryland

POTENTIAL USE AND BREEDING

Monarda bradburiana has excellent heat, humidity and drought tolerance and it would look good in "larger rock gardens", and will most likely thrive in very dry soil, gravel gardens or extreme conditions of traffic islands ⒸMissouri Botanical Garden

Monarda bradburiana in Peter Korn's naturalistic planting in Sweden - with drought tolerant perennials on well drained gritty/sandy soil with rocks. ⒸPeter Korn

Bradbury's Monarda in dry shade garden, Intrinsic Perennial Garden, Illinois ⒸBrent Horvath

The qualities of this beebalm are used in breeding, which may look a bit more difficult since this species blooms about 1 month earlier than other monarda, and with some cutting back, good timing and a bit of luck, it's possible for sure. 

Brent Horvath (Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, IL) already introduced Monarda x 'Mojo' = hybrid of M. bradburiana with M. fistulosa, which combines characteristics of both parents - dark spring foliage, shorter stems, adaptability, darker seed heads of M. bradburiana, but later flowering of M. fistulosa. 

Another Brent's selection is shorter form with dark foliage - Monarda bradburiana 'Midnight Oil' ( I haven't seen this one in bloom yet). Ⓒ IntrinsicPerennial Gardens

Monarda bradburiana 'Midnight Oil' in trial garden in Chicago Botanic Gardens, 2nd of October 2021 ⒸUS Perennials

Another hybrid is Monarda x 'Prairie Gypsy' - cross of M. bradburiana with unknown parent. This plant didn't score the highest in Mt. Cuba trials, but 3.8 points out of 5 seems to be fairly good. Maybe it needs the right spot or more continental climate for the top performance.

Monarda x 'Prairie Gypsy' in Mt. Cuba trial gardens, DE (click for more details). ⒸMt. Cuba

I didn't dig deeper into the dwarf Monarda hybrids, because they don't seem to be the best garden performers according to Mt. Cuba Monarda trials results (although they might be very good sellers). 

Some dwarfs have the genes of Monarda bradburiana, like the Monarda 'Leading Lady Lilac.

Honestly, to me it seems better to just select a great looking natural seedling and propagate it clonaly for cuttings or divisions). Because nice,vigorous and great performing seedlings naturally appear. The only advantage of hybridizing could be gaining darker flower color. But the pale or pink flowers are adorable enough.

With Andy Marrs, we have selected one plant (one of the seedling monarda, that was planted in one of his gardens) and called it 'Winona', which means "first born daughter" in Sioux language. We found this perfect name. 'Winona' has nice pink lemonade bracts, average height, pale pink flowers and reddish fall color. See the 3 pictures below.

Monarda bradburiana 'Winona'. Plants are not yet available. ⒸUS Perennials

What isn’t surprising, is that German landscape architect, and for years, director of "experimental" gardens Hermannshoff in Weinheim, Cassian Schmidt often travels to Kansas or other parts of USA to collect seeds or samples of some specific, tough, local genotypes that would do great not only in south-western German gardens, but actually in any European gardens in the times of climate change with more and more common heat waves and droughts.

Cassian Schmidt introduced at least these selections :  'Gray Summit Strain' (narrower green leaves, sturdy and healthy), 'Ozark' (selection with dark chocolate spring leaves) and 'Ozark Verbessert' ('Ozark Improved').

Monarda bradburiana 'Ozark' in show garden at Herba Grata nursery in the Czech republic ⒸJan Nussbauer, Herba Grata

Another cultivar called 'Maramek' is available in Europe too.

Allium 'Millenium' echoing seedheads of Bradbury's Monarda. Schizachyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation' on the right, Calamintha nepeta ssp nepeta and Agastache 'Blue Fortune' in the back. Design by Andrew Marrs, Bloomington, IN ⒸUS Perennials