If you’re not familiar with the herb bergamot, you may recognize its more common name: bee balm. The tall plants with eye-catching blossoms on top look like an exploding firecracker and come in a rich lilac, pale pink or bright red hue, depending on the variety. Also known by the botanical names Monardo fistulosa and Monarda didyma, bergamot is a perennial that grows easily and has a variety of uses.
This herb has a number of other unique designations: Gold Melissa, scarlett monarda, Indian nettle and Oswego tea are a few of them, as is American bee balm. The plant has large leaves, the lavender version of which have a red or purple cast. In some areas, bergamot grows wild; generally in the northeastern portion of the Midwest and on the East Coast down through Georgia. The Herbal Academy notes:
“Bee balm is the common name of both Monarda didyma, which has red flowers, or Monarda fistulosa, which can have lavender, pink, or white flowers. M. didyma and M. fistulosa are two of the most popular species among the seventeen species and over fifty cultivars of the plant. One or more of them are found nearly everywhere in North America … M. fistulosa can reach five feet tall in the Plains of North America, with M. didyma about three feet tall.”
As one might surmise, bergamot is famous for attracting beneficial butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. The leaves repel mosquitoes and gnats, and it’s a good companion plant for tomatoes. It’s beautiful in dried flower arrangements and potpourri, as a garnish and adds a punch of flavor to salads and lemonade, but one of its most popular uses is in tea. This is as good a point as any to note that there’s also something called the bergamot orange, a tropical, green citrus fruit with the botanical name Citrus bergamia.
It has the typically sour fragrance of citrus fruits, but it’s not eaten fresh. Described as tart, acidic, highly fragrant and spicy, the rind is used to make an essential oil, and it’s also the power behind the ever-popular Earl Grey tea. Its significance here is that the fruit’s essence is how the herb got its name.
Additional items to note include culinary aspects of bergamot, such as using it in apple cider vinegar to use as a marinade on wild game. Although there’s the mint connection, adding the herb to food or beverages produces a spicy rather than a minty flavor.
Modern and Traditional Uses for Bergamot
Back to the herb known as bergamot: It has a unique flavor when made into tea. For this purpose, you can strip off the leaves and pluck the flowers to dry in the shade for a few days; however, longer than that may either burn the leaves or cause them to absorb moisture, so oven-drying them is recommended. They should then be stored in an airtight, glass jar. According to Medicinal Herb Info,3 bergamot tea has three main uses:
Carminative — A preparation to help to reduce flatulence and bloating.
Rubefacient — Where applied on the skin, increases blood flow, which may relieve pain, as in arthritis.
Stimulant — Some herbalists keep it on hand to use as a mild pick-me-up for melancholy.
Native American tribes used the leaves for these purposes and also to make tea to remedy fever, nosebleeds, insomnia, heart trouble, colic, measles and to induce sweat. Poultices were also made to relieve headaches, and early physicians used it to expel parasites. The Shakers along the upper east coast in the U.S. used the tea to remedy colds and sore throats, and it’s often used in the same way today. In addition, one study observes:
“Monarda fistulosa essential oil characterized by pronounced therapeutic effects is proposed for the treatment of seborrhea [a rash, often on the scalp]. Studies of its antibacterial, antimycotic, and antiinflammatory activities showed that it inhibits microorganism growth and is superior to hydrocortisone in combination with vitamin B6 by its antiinflammatory activity.”
Naturopath Dr. Jackie Johnson writes that it’s the high thymol content in bergamot (which, like thyme, is a strong antiseptic) that explains its use as an infusion for the aforementioned ailments, as well as for upper respiratory problems and whooping cough, and topically for skin problems and wounds. She notes:
“I work as an auditor for the Oneida Nation who came to Wisconsin in the early 1800s. Monarda was common in their original homeland in New York. Mondara fistulosa is currently referred to by the Oneida as ‘No. 6’ and is available at my local health food store without cost for those who need it for an upper respiratory tea. Right now the Monarda fistulosa is in full bloom and we’re all busy harvesting.”
A Bit More History of Bergamot
Both the town of Oswego, New York, and the tea got the name from Native Americans living in the area when the colonists first arrived. According to Heirloom Organics, it was the Oswego tribe who introduced wild bergamot to the American colonists when the Boston Tea Party took place. When tea was thrown overboard, wild bergamot reportedly replaced it.
There is another tradition, however, involving the Spanish, as Monarda plants were named after Spanish physician and botanist Dr. Nicolas Monardes of Seville, Spain, circa 1493-1588. Monarda wanted to retain the original names given by natives. While he was obviously fascinated with the plants of the New World, he never went there; he had people bring them back to his gardens in Spain. His book on North American plants, “Joyful News — Botany of the New World,” was translated into English in 1577.
How to Grow and Propagate Bergamot
If growing bergamot from seed, you can start them indoors six to eight weeks beforehand. Place seeds about one-fourth inch deep and 12 inches apart in rich, fertile soil, then transplant once all threat of frost has passed. You can expect germination in 10 to 14 days if the temperature has reached about 70 degrees, with harvest in around 60 days. Powdery mildew in areas of high humidity is something to watch for.
Related to mint, bergamot also has opposite leaves and “square” stems. It’s easy to grow, does well with a mix of sun and shade, and enjoys plenty of water. It’s also an herb that can be cut back after the first bloom to increase its chances of blooming again later in the same growing season. The Herbal Academy has a number of interesting hints and tips regarding the successful growing of this attractive, bee-attracting plant, such as:
“Seed is readily available and takes between 10 and 40 days to germinate. Each flower has four nut-like seeds in each; stratify the seeds prior to planting … keep them in the refrigerator over winter and plant in the spring … These will self-sow but unlike other mints, will not get too invasive.
While bergamot can be grown from seed, hurrying the process can be done by dividing the roots nearly any time. Root cuttings can be taken during its peak growing season, which is generally between June and September (depending on your growing zone) clear through late fall. Gently break apart woody or black bits from the roots and place them 18 inches apart. It’s best to repeat this process every third year or so to ensure the plants remain hardy. According to Mother Earth News:
“In order to maintain a healthy stand of flowers, this resetting should be done every three years. If, however, you feed your plants with compost in the fall, your ‘patch’ can be left in the same spot (and will produce abundantly) for a good bit longer.”
Also known as bee balm, the botanical names Monarda didyma and Monarda fistulosa refer to the color and height of the plant bergamot, introduced by Native Americans, who had several medicinal uses for it. Besides being a perennial herb that attracts hummingbirds and bees, bergamot has lemon-scented leaves that repel mosquitoes and gnats, and is used by herbalists for its carminative, rubefacient and stimulant benefits. It’s the high thymol content in bergamot that explains its antiseptic use for upper respiratory problems and whooping cough, and topically for skin problems and wounds. To perpetuate this herb, divide bergamot roots and plant them 18 inches apart, which should be done every third year or so to ensure the plants remain hardy, unless you feed them with compost in the fall and keep them in the same spot. While bergamot can be grown from seed, you can hurry the process by dividing the roots, and root cuttings can be taken during its long growing season, which generally falls between June and September.
Article by Dr Mercola