This week, I’m featuring monarda citriodora, a wild-growing aromatic annual (sometimes biennial) flowering plant.
Also called purple horsemint, lemon mint, lemon beebalm, purple lemon mint, lemon horsemint, or just horsemint, it is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, just like another flowering plant I featured a few months back, henbit.
Manardo citriodora is often called lemon mint because the leaves and flower heads — when crushed — have a lemony smell. Some people say it smells like orange and mint. And still others believe it also smells a little like oregano. To me, it smells like lemons and spearmint.
It is also called beebalm for it was once used in treating bee stings. Either by rubbing crushed leaves on the site of the sting, or by using the leaves to make a salve, or balm, if you will.
However, I’ve called it purple horsemint since I learned about this plant when I was a kid. I also refer to it as purple horsemint now to help people remember it later. Saying lemon when explaining something makes me think of the color yellow. But, you can call it whatever you want!
The flowers of purple horsemint are frequented by butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, honeybees, bumblebees and other nectar consuming species.
Now, legend has it that this herb was also used back in the day for medicinal purposes by Native Americans and early settlers. It is believed that the plant has antiseptic properties, and was used for dental care and poultices for wounds.
Many modern day herbalists will say consuming it, either by making teas with the leaves, or eating the leaves, etc., will boost the immune system, and that it can treat ailments such as colds and respiratory issues. It is also believed to reduce fevers and headaches.
Just to be clear, I’m no medical expert and I don’t advocate the use of this plant for medicinal use. I’ll leave that for you — if you care — to research for yourself!
Another benefit is the oil from this plant contains citronellol, meaning it reportedly repels certain insects, such as mosquitoes and fleas. It is also said that rubbing crushed leaves on the skin is effective as an insect repellant.
Having purple horsemint in the garden or around the home will help keep mosquitoes at bay, according to some. Again, I’ve never tried either one of these claims, so I can’t say for certain it would work.
There are four subspecies of Monardo citriodora, two of which are found in Oklahoma. However, I am featuring the subspecies citriodora because it is the only subspecies I have found in the Ada area. Also, the other subspecies resemble to an extent the plants in my photos. If you saw the other subspecies, you would know it was monarda citriodora, is what I’m saying.
Purple horsemint is a colony-forming plant. You’ll often see patches of purple horsemint here and there.
Several stems grow from the base, reaching from 12 to about 30 inches in height. Near and at the top, stems have several whorled (clustered) flower heads. Each whorl has many flowers which range from white to lavender. Just under the flowers at the base of each cluster are many leaf-like features known as bracts. The bracts range in color from pinkish to lavender.
Because the bracts are often darker than the flowers, the tops of these plants appear almost like an ice cream cone topped with multiple scoops of alternating colors.
However, sometimes the flowers and bracts are similar in color to each other, such as both being lavender.
The leaves are long and spear-like. They often curve down and appear half-folded.
Purple horsemint can be found all over Oklahoma and much of the southern half of the United States and well into Mexico.
You’ll see these flowers in prairies, overgrown lots, fields and roadsides. In fact, there are many patches along the J.A. Richardson Loop currently. At least, the portions which haven’t been mowed.
Odds and ends
• According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas, the genus monarda was so named in honor of Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), a 16th century Spanish physician and botanist. Monardes studied medicinal plants brought back to Spain from the New World. However, Monardes never actually visited the Americas.
• In addition to using the leaves of purple horsemint to make tea, some people use them in alcoholic drink recipes, such as mojitos.
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at email@example.com.