Searching for Bee Balm

Searching for Bee Balm

A steep slope, clad in close-cropped lawn, separated the bridge's causeway from the banks of the Delaware River a hundred feet below. Security cameras are mounted on each lamppost as one approaches the span.

Rachel pulled the car to the side of the road and waited in the driver's seat, and I jumped the rail. Gazing down into the grassy precipice, I hoped for some intuition of what lay below, but none came. I had some sense that there would be no rare plants at the base of this hill, tucked among its security strips and concrete abutments.

I considered clambering down and walking the riverbank south, but I couldn't leave Rachel roadside in the car, not with security cameras tracking my every move. If there was a brain behind all of the electronic eyes, it'd just be a matter of time before security showed up in person.

I was over the fence and back on the road before the truck, bearing the official insignia of the Toll Bridge Commission, rolled up.

Out leaned the driver , calling gruffly "What are you doing?"

I had visions of a Homeland Security cell, a few interrogations, calling a lawyer...

I considered the plant angle. I'm looking for a beautiful wildflower. A powerful Native American medicine. It's on New Jersey's list of Endangered plants, and I'm not really supposed to know its location.

Hmmm. I don't imagine the guy gives a shit about plants, and the particulars sound a bit sketchy anyhow.

I imagine the headlines: Homeland Security Apprehends Poacher of America's Natural Heritage at Route 206 Bridge.

I decided to play dumb. "Ummm -- we're looking for the beach -- where can you get down to the water from here??" The baking midsummer sun and a certain youthful, wayward look on my part must have lent the fib some credence.

"Oh, you gotta drive to the Pennsylvania side for the public beach. Make the first right after the bridge, turn down Milford Beach Road". Lucky for me, the guy's not a hardass enforcer, just a regular union type. Mustache, workshirt, but no crewcut.

I scrambled back to our car and Rachel and I dutifully headed across the bridge to Pennsylvania to complete the ruse. We paid the dollar toll and I shuddered a bit at the souped-up Homeland Security cruiser parked leeward of the tollbooth. We drove to the public access beach, saw that the entrance fee was $7, and decided we'd play-acted long enough. A U-Turn at gate and we were headed back to New Jersey.


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Thus ended the day's quest for Monarda didyma. A stunning wildflower, its crimson blooms flare from atop a square stem characteristic of the mint family. Its red floral tubes are deep and intricate, adapted to pollination by hummingbirds, and its leaves exude resinous oils scented with thyme and citrus-like aromas.

Best known by the common name of bee balm, its ornamental virtues have made it one of our better-known native wildflowers, adopted into horticultural use by the 1780s.


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I first met bee balm at an old woods homestead, the buildings long since reduced to stone foundations, where bee balm persists as a signature of its long deceased planters, along with an open-grown beech tree and a meandering copse of trumpet creeper enshrouding several full-sized trees.

What I had been looking for along the Delaware River was different -- natural occurrences of the species in its wild habitat.

Bee balm as horticultural escape. Note the purplish tone of the flower.

Bee balm is a big, showy wildflower -- as flashy as a prairie sunflower or blazing star, but reputed to grow along forested streams. I imagined its crimson blooms luminescing against the dark backdrop of trees as creekwater danced among boulders. What are its plant associates? The wild signatures of its preferred habitat? Why were "escaped" garden plantings not uncommon in central and southern New Jersey, where I first met the species as a horticultural escape, but native populations deemed by botanical authorities to be restricted to a swath of ridge-lined northern Jersey in proximity to the Delaware River?

I made a long-awaited visit to the Chrysler Herbarium. Located in a Rutgers University building where I had once taken anthropology classes, oblivious to the botanical records stored in tall filing cabinets, the Herbarium, like many others, is understaffed and relegated to a basement. A few remain dedicated to its care, but the facility is ultimately unsuitable to the long-term storage of the fragile and increasingly venerable plant specimens it contained.

Tall metal filing cabinets stood in rows inside the herbarium, containing thousands of sheets of pressed and dried plant specimens mounted on archival paper. Regarding Monarda didyma, the records yielded ambiguous information. Several very old specimens were described in flowery script not seen from pen of man this side of the first world war, gothic and intricate and full of venerable authority. Several sites were scattered outside of what I sensed to be Monarda's present range in far north Jersey.

It was here that I found reference to the population along the Delaware River, maybe still extant in the 1980s, that almost got me in trouble at the bridge crossing.


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In summer 2013 we took a family vacation to Susquehannah County in northeastern Pennsylvania. The area is dubbed the "Endless Mountains" and an aerial overview shows a massive landscape of folded earth, countless ridges running in wave-like ripples over boggy valleys. We were joining a dozen-or-so members of Rachel's family for an annual reunion, held this year in a giant oversized log cabin ("lodge") filled with quaint mementoes, taxidermy, rustic furniture, and not a few modern conveniences.

Driving to the lodge, we noted the abundance along all the country roads, lined in endless profusion with farms and feral fields of meadowsweet, arrowwood, blueberries, and spotted joe pye weed. We were in the heartland of chokecherries, which hung heavy with clusters of deep red fruit. So laden were the bushes that we joked that the Endless Mountains might sink below sea level.

We were in the heartland of bee balm as well.

Along Dyberry Creek

Based out of the lodge in the Endless Mountains, we had a week of freedom, with family to help entertain and care for our young son Beren. We gathered wild fruits and vegetables, preparing at least one wild food dish every day: wood nettles skillet-fried and formed into a rich green cake; sumac "lemonade"; snacks of wild blueberries; yellow birch-hemlock tea; sheep sorrel salad; and a sauce with two of the largest wild leek bulbs we'd ever seen.

One of our most memorable days was along Dyberry Creek. Beginning at the ad hoc parking lot for State Gamelands 159, we explored a dark hemlock wood with black trumpet mushrooms poking from purple-shaded soil.

Then we leapfrogged from streamside pull-off to ad hoc parking area, driving our way down SR 1023 in the absence of any workable trail (and with a two year old in tow). Somewhere roadside along the East Branch of Dyberry Creek, something purple caught my eye. This was shortly after Uncle Robert rolled down the car window and threw a banana peel out, much to young Beren's amusement and astonishment. For months afterward, we'd get good laughs if we mentioned how "bad" Uncle Robert tossed the peel out.

The car came to a halt next to a small swampy lowland next to the road, and the glimmer of purple ended up being the club-shaped inflorescence of purple fringed orchid, with lobes tipped by feathered flanges of dark pink and attended by a throng of small, potentially confused pollinating flies.

It was after this orchid sighting that the bee balm patches came in droves, punctuating patches of sunny streamside as we drove down the road with frequent stops.

At one such stop, we walked through a beautiful wooded floodplain towards the stream. The herbs were classic forested floodplain species: drifts of wild leek with golden alexanders, blue cohosh, wood nettle, and trilliums. I stopped to dig a leek bulb from the earth and pulled out a wonderfully robust inverted carrot of a bulb, conical and longer than my palm.

Then the shade parted and I stepped out onto streamside cobbles, the rich silty floodplain where trees held no sway and the land was constantly reshaped.

Here, bee balm grew in herby abundance, tightly interwoven by floodwaters, with spotted Joe Pye weed, virgins bower, boneset, sensitive fern, stinging nettle, and cardinal flower. Across the stream where tussock sedges lay flattened in a downstream direction, the dark purple shade of a hemlock forest brought out the colors of the wildflowers vividly.

Just a few minutes later, Beren was picking common plantain from the roadside and chewing on it, then sticking it on his mosquito bites. A sward of bee balm was nearby, growing with Virginia jumpseed whose tiny white flowers look like cheap lights on a string.

We ended up observing numerous stations for bee balm on that trip, primarily along streams, but also along an old rail trail and on a woodland edge near someone's outrageously large lawn showcasing their little faux log cabin. Not a terribly picky seeming plant.

Along a hacked up woodland edge near someone's log cabin

Along a hacked up woodland edge near someone's log cabin


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Later the same day as my bridge run-in at the Delaware Water Gap, we found another New Jersey population of bee balm.  Across the road from a creek. This one had been mentioned to me by an elder botanist friend, and here it was, hanging out with joe pye weed and spicebush and hornbeam near a ditch.

Just up the road there was some periwinkle, a totally reliable sign that an old homestead was here. So... natural population? Who knows.

And there's the population on the Delaware near my house, straggling north in the floodplain from an old house that features it in its gardens. What came first, the gardens or the bee balm? And another population just south of Merrill Creek Reservoir, along a beautiful rich stream corridor... but also in the neighboring yard.

Monarda didyma was recently downgraded from State Endangered (S1) to Threatened (S2) in New Jersey, presumably reflecting the discovery or acceptance of more natural populations than formerly recognized. I'd love to have been privy to the rationale. Must have been quite a puzzle to unpack.

Natural (?) population in the Delaware Water Gap, NJ