Jane McLeod: Bee balm a treat for all senses

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— There is so much emphasis put on the usefulness of herbs that it's not always appreciated how decorative they can be. For variety in a garden, I like to tuck some of them in amongst our tried-and-true posies, and in an earlier article I described my fondness for the addition of sweet cicely for just such appeal.

Another herb that has a variety of uses and that has made a strong transition to the flower garden is bergamot, or bee balm. One of the many varieties of bergamot, the Monarda didyma, is called bee balm because bees are attracted to its scent and rich nectar. It also is a flower favored by hummingbirds for the same reasons.

The vivid flowers of some herbs stand out well and catch the eye, and such is the case with bergamot, especially the red varieties. With its big, shaggy flower heads held like a crown and dancing on top of tall stalks, bergamot is one of the handsomest of the flowering herbs. Additional varieties have flowers in a range of colors from creamy white to pink and purple. Both the long blooming flowers - about 2 to 4 inches in size - that appear in late summer in dense profusion, and the dark green, slightly toothed slender oval leaves with reddish veining, have a citrus flavor and scent. A hardy native perennial, it grows from 2 to 3 feet tall with an equal spread, and although you will see some descriptions saying it prefers partial shade, it flourishes in full sun as long as the soil is kept moist and well composted.

Bergamot is kept looking its best by trimming the plant back at the end of the growing season to a height of no more than 3 inches to encourage thick new growth every spring. If an established plant develops a hollow center, dig up the plant, discard the old, thin center parts and replant the younger root sections in fresh soil about 2 feet apart.

Bergamot is a native of the swampy areas of the United States and Canada. It was first described in 1569 in a book on American flora by Spanish medical botanist Dr. Nicholas Monardes of Seville, from whom the plant takes its botanical name. He probably called this herb bergamot because its leaf scent resembles that of the small, bitter Italian bergamot orange, Citrus aurantium bergamia, which produces an oil used in aromatherapy, perfumes and cosmetics. The American Oswego Indians originally gathered wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) and infused it to make a refreshing tea. Bergamot was then cultivated in most early North American gardens and the tea was drunk by the colonists in great quantities about the time of the Boston Tea Party. Sometime in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, it was taken to England, where bergamot was grown for the same purpose. Many tea drinkers preferred its flavor to that of China or Indian tea. Although you could obtain a refreshing taste by adding some chopped bergamot leaves to your favorite blend of Indian or China tea, you can more easily accomplish this by buying Earl Gray tea, in which oil of bergamot already has been added. Besides, a bee balm plant stripped of its leaves is not a becoming sight.

I think the real pleasure in this plant is enjoying its enthusiastic vitality and cheery - albeit slightly brassy - good looks. Besides, because of its pleasing fragrance, weeding in its vicinity becomes an unexpected aromatic delight - always a bonus.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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