This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Somewhat hairy, two feet high; leaves petioled, pointed; the floral ones and the large outer bracts tinged with red; calyx smooth, incurved, nearly naked in the throat; corolla smooth, two inches long, bright red, showy. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
THE genus Monarda is especially well qualified to be called a representative of the Mora of the United States, as most of the species belonging to it are found here, while the very few other species which are known besides grow in Mexico. With the exception of the genus Blephilia, Monarda has no very close allies, the nearest perhaps, after Blephilia, being the Rosemary of Europe; but even this is so different in general appearance that, aside from acute structural botanists, few persons would suspect the affinity. Its nearest relatives in the flora of our country (always after Blephilia) are the Sages and Catmints; these, however, are also quite unlike Monarda, so that even beginners in botany will not be very apt to confound them. In general habit Monarda might perhaps be mistaken for Pycnanthemum, or Mountain-Mint, agenus of the same natural order; but a very little knowledge of the difference in the structure of the two genera will suffice to guard the student against this error. To the casual observer the flowers of our genus will bear a very strong resemblance to those of some of the scarlet-flowered Sages. In the Salvia, or Sage, however, the stigma is cleft into two unequal and prominent segments, while in Monarda the divisions are minute and nearly equal. (See Fig. 3.) Passing over other minor characteristics, we will only add that the anthers also offer a very good distinguishing mark. In Salvia the twin anther-cells are attached to separate divisions of the filament; and while one of them is perfect and projects forward, the other is imperfect and extends backward, both stamens forming lever-like appendages, which to some degree obstruct the passage of insects in search of the sweets in which these flowers abound. In Monarda, on the contrary, the anther-cells are widely divergent at the base, but are joined together at the apex.
Morphologically considered, the genus Monarda is a welcome one to the student, as it shows better than many others the intimate relations between the different portions of a plant, from the leaf to the final fruiting condition. It is very well known that primarily all the parts of the flower are leaves; or, correctly speaking, what might have been leaves under certain conditions, become instead calyx, corolla, or some other parts of the flower. In the change from the leafy to the floral condition, the growth waves are usually uniform in each species. At flowering, these growth-waves operate very strongly in a spiral direction, giving great force to the development of what might have been an axillary bud, but which now becomes a flower, and wholly suppresses the elongating portion - the main axis or stem. In a sunflower, for instance, we have all the growth resulting in the formation of a broad flat mass of little florets, and this circular growth is always the same in all sun-flowers. In our Monarda we have the same total suppression of this elongation of the main stem in the heads of flowers, terminating the branchlets in Fig. 1; but in Fig. 2 the axis pushed on after waiting a little to permit of the lower head of flowers being formed and then started on again, ending in two more waves. Thus we have a branch with three small heads, resulting from three distinct rhythmic growths in Fig. 2 against the single wave in Fig. 1. The theoretical lesson from this is, that in this species the rhythmic waves follow each other in rapid succession, without the interval of time that usually takes place between them. In other plants, where more decided lines are drawn between these successive wave-growths, there is little resemblance between a leaf and a calyx, or calyx or corolla; but in Monarda didyma we see how gradually the slightly petioled leaves become sessile, then how gradually the leaves turn to bracts, as seen in the heads of Fig. 1, and even these are colored as the corollas are. We may thus learn from these studies that decision and indecision in growth-waves have much to do with the ultimate character of a plant.
The genus to which our plant belongs was named Monarda in honor of Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish botanist, born at Seville, who died in 1578. So many of the early known American plants, which were necessarily first examined by Europeans, were named for persons in no way connected with the history of anything American, that it is quite a pleasure to meet with an instance in which the case is different. Monardes, we are told, was not only a good botanist, but, in the language of Dr. Gray, he was also the "author of many tracts upon medicinal and other useful plants, especially those of the New World." One of these treatises was on the citron, orange, etc., and was published in 1564. Our plant has had several synonyms, of which Monarda purpurea is probably the best known. Its common name is Oswego Tea, and here and there it is also called Bee-Balm. According to Barton, the first of these two names was given to the plant because the Indians, who call it O-gee-che, "Fiery or Flaming Flower," make tea of the flowers. We may mention, in this connection, that an old English writer says the Oswego Tea is " not only a very ornamental plant in gardens, but the scent of the leaves is very refreshing and agreeable to most people, and some are very fond of the tea made with the young leaves."
The introduction of our plant into England is probably due to John Bartram, who called it Monarda Oswegoensis. In a letter to him, dated London, June 2d, 1747, Dr. John Mitchell mentions the fact that Peter Collinson had sent to Bartram for a number of American species, and among these was the Oswego Tea. The plant was no doubt sent in obedience to this reminder, for we find it recorded in Aiton's "Hortus Kewensis" as introduced "before 1752 by Peter Collinson, Esquire." It has always been very highly appreciated by garden cultivators, as it well deserves to be, - not only on account of its gay and brilliant color, but also because it produces a succession of flowers in the autumn, lasting nearly a month. Mr. Robinson, of London, in his work on "Hardy Flowers," speaks of it as a valuable plant to allow to run wild and take care of itself in the woods, when making a "wild garden." For this purpose it is exceedingly well adapted, as it increases rapidly by sending out thready under-ground runners, from which young plants shoot up; and as it is not difficult to keep when once thoroughly established. In its native places it seems to prefer low moist ground, but it does very well in any common garden soil.
Monarda didyma is the most northern species of its genus, being found in Maine. As it progresses south, it seems to leave the seaboard, for it is not common in eastern New York, and in New Jersey occurs only in the northwestern counties. It extends down the mountains to Virginia, and Dr. Chapman says that it reaches North Carolina. According to Prof. Wood, however, its range from north to south would seem to be even more extensive, as he locates it from "Canada to the mountains of Georgia." In the west, it appears in southern Michigan, but is rare in Ohio. It is occasionally found in Indiana, but is believed not to be indigenous there. Its true home seems to be along the Alleghany Mountains.
1. Branchlet with a single head.
2. Branchlet with proliferous head.
3. Individual flower in outline.