Vol. 21 Issue 2, Summer 2016
By Donna Quinn
The Monardas are peculiarly adapted to the visits of butterflies, although they are also commonly visited by bees, the bumblebee in particular.
F. Schuyler Mathews, Fieldbook of American Wildflowers, 1902
Even if Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) offered nothing but its simple beauty, it would be appreciated. But in addition to creating attractive lavender-pink floral drifts through meadows and home gardens, it is highly valued by pollinators for its sweet nectar, and by humans for its medicinal, aromatic, culinary and aesthetic qualities. Wild Bergamot, commonly called bee balm along with others in the Monarda family, is one of several beneficial native bee balms found in natural as well as cultivated landscapes. Home gardeners may be more familiar with its cousin with red flowers Monarda didyma, which is highly desired by hummingbirds.
A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), what is thought of as a flower is actually a cluster of 20 or more flowers arranged in a round head. Like other mints, it has paired leaves, a square, hollow stem, deepbranched roots and shallow rhizomes that allow the plant to spread vegetatively. The name fistulosa refers to the flowers’ tubular or pipe shape, a perfect design for long-tongued bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds. Even those without a long tongue seek its nectar and will sometimes chew a hole at the base of the flower to steal it.
Wild Bergamot grows 2 to 4 feet tall in sunny dry locations and blooms mid to late summer. It grows readily in the home garden in all but wet locations. Like many other native plants, it doesn’t need any pampering in the garden to thrive. In fact, in rich soil it grows too lanky. It is susceptible to powdery mildew in humid or wet conditions and care should be taken to place it in a location with good air circulation.
The entire plant above the roots is edible. Flowers and leaves are used as an herb for flavoring food as well as decorative garnish. Its pleasant citrus mint fragrance is similar to that of bergamot oranges; oils from plants in the bee balm family are used in perfumes. Bergamots contain thymol, a natural antiseptic, used in mouthwashes, toothpastes and skin ointments. Native American uses include treatments for headaches, sore throats, congestion, gas, nausea, cramps, acne and insect bites. Pulverized leaves soothe bee stings; it is truly a balm for bees.
Bee balms played an important role in our country’s political history. Monarda didyma, a close cousin of Wild Bergamot, provided tea-starved colonists with a tasty tea during the Revolutionary War. Bee balms quickly became a staple in the colonial garden. Although not caffeinated, bergamot tea surely helped calm and soothe during anxious revolutionary times.
Wild Bergamot is a favorite of butterflies, clearwing hummingbird moths, bees, bumblebees and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. In the native landscape or at home, a patch of Wild Bergamot provides hours of fascination observing a steady stream of lively and colorful pollinators. This pollinator powerhouse asks little yet offers much.
Mathews, F. Schuyler, Fieldbook of American Wildflowers (The Knickerbocker Press 1902).
Sanders, Jack, Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast Of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, And History (Lyons Press 2014).
Xerces Society, Gardening for Butterflies (Timber Press 2016).