A BERGAMOT BY ANY OTHER NAME IS STILL ONE GREAT HERB
Here a red planter frame on an easel is stuffed full of herbs; oregano, parsley, thyme, basil and caraway while red colanders filled with sage and mints sit below. To the right a patch of red Jacob Kline bergamot thrives.
Herbs and native wildflowers are my passion, so it’s no surprise that bergamot has been given a centre bed all of its own in my garden. I’d give it a Sealy posturepedic deluxe bed if it asked me for one. Of course if my bergamot starts asking me for anything, I dare say I will probably be the one in need of a bed!
With its striking whorls of brilliant flowers measuring 5-10 cm (2 to 4 inches) in diameter in shades ranging from shameless scarlet to a modest pink, it’s no surprise that bergamot was one of the very first North American wildflowers to catch the eye of early settlers looking to brighten the flower beds around their log homes. It is one of the few herbs that pack as a big a visual punch as it does flavour. Native to eastern Canada and the New York region of the United States, bergamot seeds quickly made their way all over North America and eventually around the world. If you’re interested in recreating a homesteader’s herb garden bergamot would be a historically accurate addition.
A member of the prolific mint family bergamot has almost as many names as it does qualities. Monarda, Oswego tea and Bee Balm are just three of its most commonly used monikers. Its Latin name Monarda is in honour of Spanish medicinal botanist Dr. Nicholas Monardes of Seville who wrote one of the first all encompassing books on the flora of America in 1569 titled “JOYFUL NEWS OUT OF THE NEWE FOUNDE WORLDE”
The name “Oswego tea” comes from the fact that the bergamot Monarda didyma or Scarlet Bee Balm is especially prevalent in the Oswego river district near Lake Ontario, where the leaves were steeped for tea and used extensively by the First Nations people for colds and bronchial treatment. Tea made from the red blossoms has an orange flavoured bite very similar in flavour to Earl Grey. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, many a patriotic American was heard to cry, “Gawk! But what will we sip to calm our nerves? What shall we serve with our crumpets?” To which others replied, “I can’t believe you just said gawk and crumpets!” The First Nations had the answer to the tea woes and soon many Americans were happily sipping locally grown, nature sown “Oswego tea.” I wonder if colds and bronchial troubles were reduced during this period.
Bergamot is commonly referred to as Bee Balm because of the poultice that can be pounded out of the petals and applied to soothe bee stings. Conversely, bees and other insects go flat out crazy for its blooms, as do hummingbirds. In fact you seldom see this bergamot without at least one bee or bird buzzing about its petals and most times it looks as if there’s a family reunion happening in the bergamot patch. How a person is supposed to collect the petals for the bee sting without getting stung again is a rather ironic dilemma. Stings aside, bees are a good thing. If you can attract bees into your garden chances are they will stick around to visit your vegetable and fruit tree blossoms at the same time. When you consider that a third of our food comes from insect-pollinated plants and the bee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination, it’s easy to see why having bees in the garden is grand.
If you’re one of those competitive tomato people, bergamot is an absolute must in your tomato patch. Bergamot is a companion plant for tomatoes, improving both the health and flavour of your love apples. Not only will bergamot entice pollinating bees over to your tomato patch instead of buzzing about prize winning braggart neighbour Fred’s, bergamot also attracts many predatory and parasitic insects that feed on garden pests. Sorry, those pests do not include prize winning braggart neighbour Fred.
The orange flavouring and aroma of the blossoms is where the plant gets its main moniker “bergamot” from. Many felt that the flowers strongly resembled the scent of the Italian bergamot orange Citrus bergamia that is used for producing oils for aromatherapy, cosmetics and perfume.
North America has several varieties of native bergamot. Here are three:
Wild or Purple Bergamot Monarda fistulosa; a hardy Native American perennial in shades of purple. Height 80 cm (32 inches) Spread 45 cm (18 inches) Zone 3 – 9
Scarlet Bergamot Monarda didyma; a close relative of Wild Bergamot this native has fire engine red blooms that burn all summer long making it a favourite of both bees and hummingbirds. The leaves and blooms are used for “Oswego Tea” Height 80 cm (32 inches) Spread 45 cm (18 inches) Zone 3 – 9
Lemon Bergamot or Lemon Mint Monarda citriodora a native self seeding annual with purplish pink whorls of blossoms. As the name implies it has a lemon scent and flavour. Height 60 – 90 cm (24 – 36 inches) Spread 30 cm (12 inches).
A huge array of cultivars has been developed from our native varieties. Here are just a few (unless otherwise noted, the following perennials reach a height of 80 cm (32 inches) with a spread of 45 cm (18 inches) and are listed Zones 3 – 9)
Bergamot Blue Stocking Monarda blaustrumf
A purple profusion of blooms throughout the summer months.
Monarda Croftway Pink
Whorls of rose pink flowers with pink tinged bracts from July to September. Aromatic mid-green leaves.
Monarda Cambridge Scarlet This popular, old variety has bright red flowers surrounded by striking, brownish-red bracts from July to September and pointed, mid-green leaves. Another favourite of bees and hummingbirds.
Bergamot Beauty of Cobham
Stunning dense 2-lipped pale pink flowers bloom all summer long.
Monarda Grand Marshall This compact bee balm produces a profusion of brilliant, fuchsia-purple flowers mid-to-late summer. Excellent upright form. Wonderful in the border, rock garden or even in containers. Good mildew resistance. 60 cm (24 inches) in height.
Monarda Marshall’s Delight features bright hot-pink flowers with large, shaggy heads. Foliage is delightfully fragrant, and significantly more resistant to powdery mildew than older varieties. A favourite of both butterflies and hummingbirds.
Monarda Jacob Kline This variety is not only popular with bees and hummingbirds, but beloved by gardeners as well. The brilliant red blooms last for weeks and it is also mildew resistant. What more could you want? Touted as hardy to Zone 4 but thrives in my Zone 2b bed.
Bergamot Snow Maiden Monarda Schneewittchen Very attractive white flowers throughout the summer. Zone 6
Pests and Diseases
Got mildew? Get milk! Bergamot is prone to powdery mildew. Research has proven that weekly spraying of plants with a mixture of one part milk to nine parts water rids plants of mildew as effectively as any chemical method and far better than the old organic standby of baking soda mixed with soap or oil. Some gardeners may be tempted to increase the ratio of milk to water but studies show that once milk concentrations rise above 30% a fungus begins to grow on the plants. Use skim milk to lessen the chance of odour. Another method for combating mildew is to remove affected leaves as soon as you see them. If the entire plant is affected you will need to cut it down to ground level, but don’t worry; the bergamot is tough and will rise back up like a phoenix.
To prevent mildew avoid crowding and allow for lots of air circulation. Think of that old children’s ditty; if there are 10 in that posturepedic bed, the bergamot would be the little one that said, “I’m crowded, roll over.” Wild bergamot Monarda fistulosa is less prone to mildew as are the cultivars Grand Marshall, Marshall’s Delight and Jacob Kline.
Maintenance and Propagation
Only species grow true from seed. Cultivars can only be reproduced through cuttings or division.
Spring: Sow seeds from species. Divide roots. Dig up 3 year old plants, discard the dead centre, then divide and replant the outer rootlets spacing them 12 inches apart.
Summer: Take cuttings from vigorously growing plants in early summer as soon the shoots reach 7.5 – 10 cm or 3 – 4 inches in length. Dead head often to ensure a continual abundance of blooms all summer long unless you want seed.
Fall: After the first frost cut foliage off to the ground and top dress generously with compost or manure. If you are growing species harvest seed in the fall. Keep in mind that if you have a variety of species those busy bees will most likely have cross-pollinated them which can make for a delightful mystery-mix of blooms, but if its pure seed you’re after you will need to be content with only one species in your patch, or if you have a big enough yard plant the species as far apart as possible.
Winter: In colder zones cover with mulch for added protection.
Bergamot thrives in moist nutrient-rich soil but will tolerate even heavy clay and does well in either full sun or part shade making it a very adaptable and diverse addition to practically any garden scheme.
Pick leaves as you need them throughout the season. For drying it is best to collect the leaves before the plant blooms. Chopped leaves can also be added to stuffing, salads, jams and jellies. Remember that the leaves have a hot oregano taste that is quite concentrated, so it’s best to use a light touch!
Cut flowers for drying as soon as they open. Dried bergamot blossoms keep both their citrus fragrance and their bright colours remarkably well making them sought after additions for potpourris. To use the fresh blossoms, pull the individual lipped flowers off the central head and add to your culinary creations. Whether fresh or dried, bergamot blossoms taste of a combination of thyme, mint and citrus, making flavourful, colourful additions to salads, pork, chicken, pasta, vegetables or fish and are great for blending with black tea to make a cup of mock Earl Grey. Float the blooms in an ice tea herb punch for added beauty and flavour.
Monarda didyma is grown commercially in Canada primarily for the extraction of Thymol; an active ingredient used in commercial mouthwash formulas. Thymol’s strong antiseptic properties are also used against fungi, bacteria, and parasites.
Tea made from bergamot leaves will help relieve nausea, flatulence, menstrual pain and vomiting, as well as helping with colds and bronchial troubles. Aroma therapists have found bergamot oil beneficial for treating depression and fighting infection. Always consult your doctor or naturopath before using any herbal remedies.
To make a cup of mock Earl Gray tea steep 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of dried Monarda petals or 15 ml (1 tablespoon) of fresh blossoms with a good quality black tea for 5 – 7 minutes. Place the flowers and black tea in a tea infuser or strainer and then pour a cup of boiling water through them. Monarda didyma gives the tea a gorgeous red hue. NEVER BOIL THE BLOSSOMS! Boiling any herbs will cause the essential oils to evaporate losing much of the flavour and most of the medicinal qualities. Note: you can use bergamot leaves for tea as well; particularly if you are after its medicinal qualities, but keep in mind that leaves have a spicy oregano-like flavour which some dislike. Now take your tea outside, sit in your favourite chair and watch your garden grow!