Seeing Red

Seeing Red

March 24 2022

Shhh, don’t bother me, I’m apricating. Me and the flowers, basking away. It’s a summer morning and I’m up early to get things done before the sun gets too hot. I love the slanted early morning light (evening, too) especially since I know I won’t want to be out in the red hot sun later. Did you know that the time it takes to get dark after the sun goes down or the length of time it's light out before the sun comes up is longer in the northern latitudes than southern? Dusk and dawn are a slow business here in Montana.

Sunlight is on my mind because I am wondering if some shade plants are doing ok now that they are more exposed to sun. We removed a large spruce tree on the south side of the house-it shaded the house all winter and none at all in the summer. I don't have many rules, but “don’t plant sixty foot conifers on the south side of the house” is one of them. This area now gets afternoon shade only. But everything seems to be alright, a little leaf burn on a hosta and a fern. Eventually, a newly planted crabapple will shade everything again.

Speaking of sun, plants have some survival techniques. One is that newly emerging leaves are sometimes red, called juvenile reddening, which protects those tender new leaves because the anthocyanins (red coloring) act as a sunscreen. Also, bees and other insects can’t see the color red and aren’t as likely to chomp on those leaves which look grayish to them. Hummingbirds on the other hand, can see reds, oranges, and and near red UV light and since they are pollinating all those red tubular flowers (think salvias, penstemons) while gathering nectar, these flowers don’t normally have scent, they don’t have to attract bees which can’t see that color anyway! Wonders upon wonders-everything fits.

This ‘Jacob Cline’ Bee Balm, or Monarda, is doing fine in its spot in that newly sunny garden even though I’ve read that they prefer some shade. I wondered if the name Bee Balm throws all the above mentioned generalities about the color red and scent out the door as it isn't meant to attract bees. But no, the name comes from the use of its leaves to soothe bee stings. Also called Oswego Tea (Native American tribe) or Bergamot, it was also used for tea, expelling worms, and treating gas and stomach problems. I have made Bee Balm tea, can’t say it’s my favorite.

Monarda also comes in pink, purple and white, is edible-a member of the mint family-and is native to North America. The ones I’ve seen in our mountains are a lovely rich shade of lavender.

I’m off to plant some flowers in a new bed on the east side of my house. I’m calling it the Sunrise Garden and it’s going to be full of yellow, orange and red flowers. A brilliant beginning to another wonderful day in the gardens.

Bee Balm, Monarda didyma, family Lamiaceae, zone 4-9