There is so much emphasis put on the usefulness of herbs that it is 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 has made a strong transition to the flower garden is bergamot or bee balm. One of the many varieties of bergamot (Monarda didyma) is called bee balm because bees are attracted by its scent and its 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 of 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 through pink and purple. Both the long blooming flowers — about 2 to 4 inches in size, which appear in late summer in dense profusion — and the dark green, slightly toothed slender oval leaves with reddish veining, have a citrusy flavor and scent.
A hardy native perennial, it grows from 2 to 3 feet tall with an equal spread, and even though 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 about American flora by the Spanish medical botanist Dr. Nicholas Monardes, of Seville, Spain, 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) that 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 around the time of the Boston Tea Party. Somewhere in the late 18th or early 19th century, it was taken to England where bergamot was grown for the same purpose, many tea drinkers preferring its flavor to that of Chinese or Indian tea. Although you could obtain a refreshing taste by adding some chopped bergamot leaves to your favorite blend of Indian or Chinese tea, you more easily can accomplish this by buying Earl Gray tea where oil of bergamot already has been added for you. 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. And 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 Routt County CSU Extension office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.