Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month - Bergamot/Bee Balm - December 1999
BERGAMOT/BEE BALM (Monarda didyma)
Bergamot, or bee balm, is a North American native, a perennial that blooms profusely in the summer. It grows two to four feet tall and occurs in shades of scarlet, burgundy, mauve, pink, and white. The plant probably got its name because the scent of its leaf resembles that of the small, bitter, Italian bergamot orange. The Oswego Indians drank a tea of the leaves and introduced it to the early settlers who used it as a tea substitute after the Boston Tea Party. It became popular as a European garden and tisane plant after the settlers sent back seeds.
Bergamot attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees. (Honeybees have difficulty reaching the nectar in the tubular flowers.) Use the leaves and flowers in potpourri, the dried flowers in crafts and the fresh flowers in bouquets. Three teaspoons of fresh young bergamot leaves added to one teaspoon of China tea and steeped for five minutes in two cups of boiling water make an herbal "Earl Grey" tea.
Grow bergamot in full sun or partial shade in a rich, well-drained soil. It is not suitable for growing indoors. Divide in the spring; take stem cuttings in early summer. Thin or transplant to 18-24 inches apart and divide every three years. Control powdery mildew with good air circulation and by cutting plants back to the ground after flowering, or grow mildew-resistant varieties. Collect leaves in spring or summer and pick flowers when fully open. Preserve both by drying.
Sources: The Complete Book of Herbs, by Lesley Bremness and Ortho's All About Herbs, by Maggie Oster.
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