Consider the Lilies (and Monardas) of the Field

August 2016 

by Linda Martinson 

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” 

And let us consider the Monarda wildflowers as well, because both are common late summer/early fall wildflower species of the Southern Blue Ridge mountains. These species are both showy wildflowers exhibiting a typical dynamic of  — shape of blossom/color-showiness/type of pollinators attracted/method of seed dispersal that is different from that of the spring through early summer wildflowers. These late summer/early fall species are sometimes quite tall, up to 8 to 10 feet high, with bright colorful blossoms. They have to be prominent to stand out in the lush foliage of late summer and to attract the pollinators they need to reproduce, such as butterflies, large moths, or hummingbirds.  They also have to be sturdy with fairly large, open leaves to soak up enough light energy from the sun to produce copious amounts of seeds, mostly dispersed by the wind. 

The Turk’s Cap lily has a memorable scientific name: Lilium superbum.  Other common names include turban lily, swamp lily, lily royal, or American tiger lily. It is native to eastern North America with a range from as far north as Alberta and south to the Florida panhandle, although it grows most often from New Hampshire south to Georgia. It prefers moist meadows, roadsides, and thickets and the wetter edges of forests, and it can grow in quite wet conditions. It is on the endangered list in Florida, New Hampshire, Alberta, and Saskatchewan and is listed as threatened in Kentucky and New York. It is a favorite food of deer.

Stand of Turk’s Cap lilies (Lilium superbum) from herbarium.biol.sc

The Turk’s Cap lily is the tallest of the native American lilies, growing up to 7 or 8 feet tall, and it is a true lily which means that it has an overwintering underground bulb that puts out horizontal roots and shoots in the spring. Native Americans used the roots and bulbs as a food source in the winter and spring. It is a rather slow growing plant and can take several years to establish, but then it can be quite prolific with sometimes as many as 40 blossoms on each of its tall, thick, and smooth stems. Several lance-shaped leaves up to 6 inches long grow in whorls around the stems. The flowers are large and usually fragrant, bright yellow to orange-red with maroon spots and downward facing with sharply-reflexed petals and sepals that curve backwards in a cap-shape. The seeds ripen in the late summer and are dispersed by the wind; they have somewhat complex germination patterns that vary and are not completely documented.

Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum)  Photo credit: Jim Poling, Blue Ridge Naturalist

At Richland Ridge, I have seen a large stand of Turk’s Cap lilies growing near the beaver ponds beside the bridge from the parking lot at the pavilion to the Fosters’ garden — hopefully it is too tall to be devoured by our resident deer. There is a second species of lily that also grows in the Western North Carolina mountains and that looks quite similar to the Turk’s Cap lily: the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii). Their flowers are almost identical, but the Carolina lily is much shorter, usually only about 2 feet tall. The leaves are shorter and darker green and there are fewer whorls or sets of leaves around their stems. Also, there are usually no more than one or two flowers on each stem of the Carolina lily, and it grows in drier and more acidic conditions. Carolina lilies grow in the back meadow of the river front property at Richland Ridge.

        Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) Photo credit: Jim Poling Blue Ridge Naturalist

The Monardas of the Blue Ridge provence are a genus of the mint family, a large worldwide family of over 7,000 species that includes a huge number of herbs, many small shrubs, and even a few trees. The Monarda wildflowers are strong, erect plants usually growing up to about three feet tall. The flowers are two-lipped, with a narrow upper lip and a wider lower lip, and they are bilaterally symmetric. Monardas typically have crowded head-like clusters of red, pink, or purple flowers with leaf bracts, specialized leaves beneath the flowers, that are usually different from the foliage of the rest of the plant. They have common names like bee balm, horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, and the genus was named for Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish botanist, who wrote a book about the plants of the New World in 1574. Monarda species are important food plants for the larvae of many Lepidoptera pollinators, and some moths feed only on specific Monarda foliage.

Three common and easily identified Monardas of the Southern Appalachians are bee balm (Monarda didyma), basil balm (Monarda clinopodia), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). All three of these native plants were used by Native Americans as powerful medicinals, for example to treat headaches and fevers, and also as antiseptics. They were also used as flavoring herbs.

The crushed leaves of all species of Monarda exude a fragrant, spicy essential oil, and bee balm (Monarda didyma) has the highest concentration of this oil. It is a colorful red flower, also called Oswego tea or crimson bee balm, with long tubular shaped flowers that are pollinated mostly by hummingbirds. Its leaves are particularly aromatic and taste like a mix of spearmint, peppermint and oregano. Native Americans used it to season wild game, particularly birds. The reddish colored leaf-like bracts just below the flowers are the “bee balm” part of the plant, and were used to make a poultice for insect stings. The leaves were also used to make a steeped medicinal tea by the Oswego Indians, which led to one of its common names. Bee balm is a natural source of the antiseptic compound thymol, the primary active ingredient in many commercial mouthwashes. (N.B. Thymol is an intriguing natural compound derived from both bee balm and wild bergamot plants — it’s worth an Internet search to find out more about it.) Like most of the Monardas, bee balm is found over most parts of North America and grows in moist meadows, hillsides, and forest clearings up to 5,000 feet in elevation.

     Bee balm (Monarda didyma) Photo Credit: Jim Poling, Blue Ridge Naturalist

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is also a common Monarda wildflower with a long medicinal history among Native Americans and early settlers. It has flowers that are usually purple or pinkish-purple, and it grows in both open fields, roadsides, and meadows and also in dry wooded areas. This species is quite variable, and there are several recognized subspecies or varieties within it. It often appears in clumps of 20 to 50 flowers growing about 3 feet tall. Wild bergamot oil also contains thymol and has a strong distinctive scent; it was used to treat respiratory problems. The leaves were frequently brewed as a medicinal tea by the Cherokee for digestive maladies and for other ailments including nervous conditions. The flowers attract several native butterflies, and the larvae of two native moths (Coleophora heinrichella and Coleophora monardella) feed only on the leaves of wild bergamot.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa ) Photo credit: Jim Poling BRNN

Basil balm (Monarda clinopodia) is similar to wild bergamot, but the flowers are a paler pink or white with whitish bracts. It was also used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans and early settlers, especially for poultices for insect stings. Basil balm commonly interbreeds with wild bergamot. 

There is also a natural hybrid/backcross of all three of these Monarda species, seen occasionally and identified reliably since 1971, with the common name of purple bergamot (Monarda media Willd.). It is easily identified because it has deep reddish-purple flowers and dark purple bracts, and it usually occurs in the same habitat as bee balm. The seeds of the purple bergamot do not typically germinate true to form; as a USDA publication states, “This plant has no children.”  

                  Basil Balm (Monarda clinopodia) Photo Credit: Jim Poling, BRNN

    Purple Bergamot    (Monarda media Willd.)    Reference and photo credit: usda.gov

I have seen all three of these Monarda wildflower species in the montane alluvial area beside Richland Creek Road and in the back meadow along the river, although I have not found purple bergamot at Richland Ridge. Another place to look for all these distinctive and easily identified lilies and Monarda wildflowers is along the Blue Ridge Parkway, both north and south of Asheville. Turk’s Cap lilies will leap out at you and, with some searching, you can find some Carolina lily plants. Then keep looking…and when you find a sturdy wildflower with a square stem, a clustered flower head, two-lipped flowers, and aromatic leaves, it is almost definitely a mint plant and likely one of these three common species in the genus Monarda. They are all cheerful, useful plants that smell good and are eye-catching and colorful, and well worth finding and identifying.