Plains Beebalm — July 2010

Plains beebalm stem

Plains beebalm plant

Plains beebalm flowers

The plains beebalm plant is known by many names, but the one I find particularly intriguing is the pagoda plant. With groups of leaves emerging in a regularly-spaced pattern along the stem topped, on the upper parts of the stem, by hemispherical flower clusters, these plants can be quite reminiscent of those distinctive Far Eastern temples. Plants in the genus Monarda have traditionally been called beebalms because not only do their flowers attract those pollinators in great numbers, but various concoctions from these plants have traditionally been used to treat insect bites and stings. The name Monarda honors the Spanish physician and botanist Nicholas Monardes (1493–1588) who, though he never traveled to North America, wrote a book on medicinal plants of the New World. The plains beebalm, Monarda pectinata,, has its species designation derived from the Latin word pecten, meaning comb, probably alluding to the pattern of nodes along the stem. Other common names for this plant include pony beebalm, spotted beebalm, plains lemon monarda, and horse mint.

Plains beebalm is an annual herb usually found in sandy plains, pastures, dry washes, and open areas of piñon-juniper woodlands. Plants may have one or more stems growing to a height of 16 inches. Each main stem may branch farther up the stem and all stems are covered with short, downward-curving hairs. Thin lance-shaped leaves with finely toothed edges up to two inches long are born on short petioles. Mounded flower clusters may appear from June through September in the upper leaf axils. Leaves associated with the flowers range in color from green to pink and the flowers are white to pink, sometimes with purple spots. The five sepals join to form a tube tipped by spiny hairs and the five petals form a distinctive curved two-lipped tube about one inch long. The upper lip of each floral tube is arched with a rounded top and the lower lip ends with three lobes.

Monarda pectinata, is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, a large and well-known family (with 252 genera and over 6.800 species worldwide) characterized by stems that are square in cross section and leaves that are arranged in an opposite pattern along the stem. Many plants in this family have volatile oils such as menthol so some of our culinary herbs (e. g., basil, catnip, lavender, rosemary, sage, and thyme) as well as the popular houseplant Coleus are mints. The genus Monarda is endemic to North America and contains 16 species, five of which are native to New Mexico. Plains beebalm, like many mints, has edible leaves that have traditionally been used as a substitute for oregano. Native Americans are known to have ground up the leaves to flavor sausages and other meat dishes. The plant was also used to prepare a ceremonial lotion and an infusion of its flowers was used as a perfume. Medicinally, there are reports of preparations from this plant used for treating headaches, stomach disease, coughs, flu, and fever. I’d say the interesting growth form of this plant alone is sufficient for one to want to include it in a wildflower garden. So gather some seeds this fall and give it a try. You might even develop a real taste for the plains beebalm.

© Jerry Melaragno 2010

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