It’s a very peculiar thing. I used to have one clump of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in the Driveway Border, and now I have two.


You can see both clumps in this picture. They are at the end of the border closer to the house. The original clump is in the background, the new one in the foreground, closer to the brick path to the front door. Both clumps are about the same height, 4-5 feet.

However, the flowers of the new clump are of a distinctly more purplish hue, while the original clump is the normal light lavender-blue sported by this plant.


If you look from this angle, you can see the ‘Raspberry Wine’ Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) blooming in the Sidewalk Border. But I digress.


Take a closer look: new clump.



Old clump (straight species Wild Bergamot).

How to explain? Initially I thought that the new clump was started by a wandering rhizome from the old clump, but then how to account for the difference in color? Is the new clump a naturally occurring hybrid that evolved right here in the Front Garden?


Another digression: Wild Bergamot and Bee Balm were planted together in the Sidewalk Border, but in that part of the garden the Wild Bergamot has been almost entirely squeezed out at this point. In moist soil, it seems, the Bee Balm will spread more aggressively.

‘Purple Rooster’

But back to our mystery: here’s another twist. In the Front Island Bed, which is between the Sidewalk and Driveway Borders, we have another Monarda, a cultivar of Wild Bergamot known as ‘Purple Rooster’.

‘Purple Rooster’ in the Front Island Bed

‘Purple Rooster’ looks just like the Wild Bergamot in the new clump except that it is shorter, a little over 3 feet. Could I have transplanted the new clump from the Front Island Bed to the Driveway Border while under some kind of trance? But then why is the new clump more than a foot taller than ‘Purple Rooster’?

At this point you may be asking: who cares? Why get agitated about insignificant variations in essentially the same plant. If you are the sort of person who could ask such a question, clearly you are not a gardener, and we have nothing further to say to each other. Kindly do not darken my doorstep again.

But if you are not that sort of person, can you suggest any solutions to the Monarda Mystery?


59 Comments on “Monarda Mystery

  1. Either a bee assisted cross, or the wild bergamot really *did* sport, just like a rose bush can mutate and a cane arises with a different colored bloom, or grows long and you have a climber. I’d keep an eye on it and see what it does!

  2. No ideas about your mystery, but over my decades of gardening I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “where’d that come from” and “hmmmm, interesting”. Mother Nature has a keen sense of humor. In any case, the varying shades of wild bergamot are delightful! Carol of May Dreams Gardens would blame it on her garden fairies.

  3. I think gardens are like families: you can’t explain everything. Sometimes you just shrug and admire the bloom.

  4. Maybe the soil is just a little different there causing the difference in height? Perhaps a piece of a rhizome was on your shovel when you were moving something else to this area and it then grew. I love these mysteries.

  5. Ah, the fun of gardening. Happens in my yard every year one way or another.
    I’d guess bees cross pollinated the various plants or a creature was carrying a seed and dropped it while on the move. Or, maybe you assisted the process somehow without realizing it.

  6. I haven’t a clue about an answer for your questions, but I do have an observation. Out in the wild, oddities abound. Our most common species of bluebonnet usually is blue, but sometimes it shows up white, or yellow. I’ve found pink Gaillardia right in the middle of a traditionally-colored patch of red and yellow flowers. Genetic variation, a kind of botanical returning to type, is common. If there are enough “odd” flowers close enough together for them to be pollinated by one another, they can spread — or so I’ve been told.

    • It’s true that there is lots of genetic variation, which is part of what makes plants interesting – and provides the raw material for plant breeders. Otherwise we wouldn’t have so many amazing tulip varieties, to give one example.

  7. It reads as though the comments above cover all angles of your mystery! I love the different lavender-coloured variations. (My Raspberry wine has almost taken over my garden along with bindweed.) it’s been too hot to work outside for long.

  8. One of my favorite hostas is “June”. This spring half of the plant reverted to its parent “Halcyon”. Just another garden evelving backwards.

  9. I wish it would grow for me!
    I would put my money on self seeding after cross pollination.
    But only 50 pence!

  10. I love garden mysteries! The new bergamot variation is so lovely. My own favorite garden mystery is my swamp milkweed – one of my plants is not at all like the others! It is shorter by at least a foot, and the foliage is darker green and fuzzy. It also seems to be a bit more tolerant of dry soil. Makes me want to volunteer it to someone who could propagate it and call it a natural selection!

  11. How mysterious! I think most possibilities have been covered in the comments. I do love the colour of the mystery plant though, lucky you!xxx

  12. Interesting… there is A LOT of Monarda fistulosa here on the farm and along the roadsides. When I came back here in 2013, the colonies were small and now they are HUGE. It is very interesting about the difference in the ​color of your plants from one location to another. I will check the ones growing here to see if there is a variation in color from one colony to another. I have noticed that there different heights, though. Maybe due to the age of the plants, or how long they have been in that spot. A colony that has been in an area for three years compared to one year. Light also plays a role. Plants in shadier areas may not grow as tall even though their soil stays damp longer. I am talking about plants in the wild here compared to your beds where I am sure they all get ample moisture. Also, where plants have competition. I feel, and this may sound weird, plants get into a competition​ like they communicate. Some become intimidated by stronger growing neighbors like where your wild bergamot has been squeezed out by the cultivar. In other areas, the wild has flourished. Great post and I think any great gardener would be curious about the variation in the color and how plants grow from one location to another. Thanks for sharing!

      • Oh, man! There is more here every year as it is quite the spreader. I don’t remember ever seeing it when I lived here before, not along highways or anywhere. There was a little here and there when I came back in 2013, but now there is AAALLLOOOTTT! Very beautiful and the butterflies and bumble bees love the flowers.

  13. As I read your post, all I could think of was the theme from Dragnet 🙂 Garden mysteries are so enthralling…especially the good kind (not the “what the hell chewed through all the corn stalks” type or, more recently, “who plowed through my potato bed?”). In your case, I usually blame bird poop or a seed head that got tossed into another section of the garden by an animal or during garden cleanup…and didn’t you say that the guys that cleaned up your garden didn’t use your own stuff as mulch? Maybe the wayward seeds came from another garden altogether.

    • I was thinking more of Law and Order (chung-chung). It’s possible the new variety came from another garden, though this is not a plant you see in a lot of home gardens here.

  14. I would consider it lucky and move forward. I had the same type of crossing happen in my Seaford garden with Lobelia. Had Cardnial (red) and the blue one L. siphilitica, and gained a lovely lavender one. I love nature!

  15. I had a good giggle with your proclamation that there’s no way anyone except a gardener who would understand the particular angst of not understanding exactly what happened with the plants. Been there, done that! Great post! For what it’s worth, they’re all lovely!

  16. Purple Rooster is a fav of mine here and loves this year’s abundant rain. I have no answers for you, but I know that my plants get down to business in the garden and spread themselves and their progeny as they please 🙂

  17. My understanding is that M. fistulosa and M. didyma interbreed and produce hybrids pretty easily. My guess would be that this is a self-sown seedling (and a very pretty one!) from such a cross.

  18. They both look pleasingly healthy. I have things jumping around the yard and garden to find new homes by seed – some quite long distances. But I have never had my monarda do this. It just doesn’t come up from the previous year’s seed in my yard like a lot of other annuals and perennials. It’s always good to have at least one plant mystery.

  19. could it be the seeds were there winter and you swept or shoveled it when it was snowing?

    • Possible – but one thing that surprises me is how well-established they are, not like something that just started growing this year.

  20. Natural genetic variability. Seriously. The wild form is likely quite genetically stable, but even genetically stable plants can exhibit some degree of genetic variability. It is why perennial peas are mostly the same purplish pink, but some are lighter pink and some are white. The wild form likely tossed a bit of seed which produced the unidentified variety. Now, some cultivars like ‘Purple Rooster’ are likely sterile (and likely sterile from crazy and unnatural breeding), but those that are able to produce viable seed are much more likely to exhibit genetic variability, just because they are so genetically screwed up. In other words, they are not ‘true-to-type’. Not only is the color of their offspring likely to be different, but so is the plant form. They tend to revert back to their wild form, even if it takes a few generations to do so. This is why most varieties of nasturtium (except genetically stable sorts like ‘Empress of India’) eventually revert back to the plain and simple orange and yellow, without the more unusual colors that they started out with. such as pastels and darker shades. If I had to guess, and the timing is right, I would say that the new one is merely a feral seedling of ‘Purple Rooster’. To further complicate things, even if ‘Purple Rooster’ is sterile, and could not be pollinated by the wild form, it might still be able to provide pollen to hybridize with the wild form, which could have provided the seed. (Some sterile plants are only sterile because they lack one of the two genders.) Wow, I hope I said that all correctly.

      • I should have left that part out. As I was writing, I was thinking of the ‘sterile’ pampas grass, which was only sterile because it lacked pollen. It had not problem hybridizing with the common weedy pampas grass.

  21. I think this is a gift from nature Jason .. I once planted a red trillium within friendly ? distance to a white one .. and came up with a pink one … I think it is cross pollination .. a hybrid .. and that is another way of nature saying “look what I can do for you !” LOL .. it makes me smile and just think of how many happy pollinators you have in your garden !

  22. It must be a gift from the garden to you, for taking such good care of it. I found a white forget-me-not in my garden this spring.

  23. I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been suggested. Mother Nature doing her thing, I reckon.

  24. Here we go…serendipity again. I had the same kind of thing happen with garden phlox. Enjoy it, and when it spreads, share with friends.

  25. Well, I can’t solve the mystery but do love those different shades, and the different heights add interest too. I got a mystery marigold and some still to be identified plant turn up in my beds this summer…

  26. The wild bergamot in my front yard did same thing! I now have lavender, light pink, purple, and fuchsia flowers where I used to have just lavender. I kind of love it. I think it’s cross-pollination (I have a grape gumball monarda in my backyard) because I definitely did not plant anything monarda-related in that area other than wild bergamot.

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