Friday, March 9, 2012

Bergamot / Bee Balm - Herb of the Week

A truly American herb, also known as Oswego tea or bee balm, bergamot 
            (Monarda Didyma) is this week's Herb of the Week
Grown and used by Native Americans as a popular tea for both its taste and medicinal properties, Bergamot originally grew in parts of Western New York but now the plant is cultivated in Europe after seeds were sent over in the 1700s by John Bartam. In Europe and England the common name is Golden Melissa or Indian nettle. Although these perennials are used to adorn gardens, because hummingbirds, butterflies and bees are attracted to the fragrance and nectar, the leaves are popularly dried to prepare bergamot tea. In fact, Native American bergamot tea drinkers shared this delectable tea with colonial settlers, who then used it as a substitute when imported tea became scarce after the Boston tea party.

It is known by so many names that it is best to search for it by scientific name Monarda Didyma or just Monarda, but when asking for the plant remember if they do not know Bergamot, ask for Bee Balm the most common name used.
To Grow
Bergamot is identified by its sturdy, square stems shooting to a height of four feet with simple leaves. The leaves are crowned with glorious pink, purple, white or bright red colored flowers. The flowers have petals shaped as spikes, which is what makes them uniquely beautiful. Known as herbaceous perennial, Bergamot has a non-woody stem and will survive the winter, even thought its growth above the ground dies.
The Bergamot plant is indigenous to eastern North America. It grows in early to late summer and attains a height of 2-4 feet. This plant requires good sunshine and grows well under a full sun. It requires moist and well-drained soil for growth. The leaves and even flowers of the Bergamot are used to make tea. This plant belongs to the mint family and its blooms and leaves have a minty fragrance. The plant grows and spreads fast, so it requires lots of space to grow.
For proper Bergamot planting, place in an area where there is partial to full sunshine and good air circulation. The Bergamot should be planted in spring or fall and space of at least 1 to 2 feet should be maintained between each plant, because it spreads very fast. A 12 to 15 inch deep hole should be dug for planting. Mix some compost with the soil removed, then place the plant in the hole, cover lightly with soil and water enough to moisten the soil. Do not over water. Use the 10-10-10 garden fertilizers in small amounts to nourish the plant, if needed.
It is important to provide the Bergamot with plenty of space to grow and spread. It can self-seed and spread by underground stems, like any good Mint.  Being from the mint family it is invasive and will spread to occupy every little space nearby. Many people plant it in the landscape in areas where other plants do not grow well so it will fill in a sparse landscape.  It is therefore important that the plants be divided every few years, in the spring, in order to prevent them from forming an entangled mess. Apply a layer of compost each spring along with a 2-inch layer of mulch to retain moisture. In the fall, prune the plant down to an inch or two above the ground. While growing Bee Balm, remember that it needs to be protected from powdery mildew. In case it succumbs to powdery mildew, then trim the plant down to the ground surface.
Deadheading can also be done to cause the plant to re-bloom. Deadheading means removing the spent flowers so as to promote fresh flowering. Bergamot starts flowering from July and continues until late fall. In this period, pruning and trimming is very important to facilitate healthy flowering. Clean off the dead flowers and dried leaves regularly. Once the growth of the plant starts to slow down, cut the plants back to ground almost to 6 inches.
Bergamot can be grown in ordinary garden soil or clay soils. But it has been observed that they thrive better in dry alkaline soil. Sunlight is a must to facilitate healthy growth of the plant. Using mulch is recommended as it helps in retaining moisture in the soil thereby preventing soil and reduces the need for watering.
If you want to grow Bergamot in a container, you can prepare a well-drained soil mixture for them to grow in. A mixture of perlite, peat moss, dry compost, vermiculite and some manure for nutrition will be perfect.  Select a place in your garden for the container where there is full sun or partial shade.
Bergamot is very susceptible to powdery mildew, especially the original purple varieties which I believe are the wild versions (M. fistulosa) closest to the Oswego Tea of the Native Americans.  It does have geranoil which helps prevent tooth decay.   But with 30 different Bergamot cultivars available now, you can find those that are resistant to powdery mildew.  Marshall’s Delight’ which is deep pink, and ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ are disease resistant.  If you have a dry, warm climate choose ‘Adam’ which is white or ‘Blue Stocking’ which is violet.  If you, like me, enjoy a lemon flavor, look for Monarda citrodora, lemon bergamot.  If you like something out of the ordinary try Monarda punctata sometimes called spotted bee balm or horsebalm.  It is high in antiseptic compounds and has whorls of cream-colored flowers spotted with purple.

To Use
Apart from their aesthetic value, the Bergamot leaves and flowers are used to make tea. The fragrant oil of the Bergamot is used to treat skin eruptions, rashes and infections. It can also be used for relief from fever, nausea, headaches and sore throat. Also, the pulverized leaves of the plant are used to treat bee stings. That is where the common name Bee balm comes from. Tea can be made from fresh as well as dried leaves. Bergamot tea has even been used to preserve meats and as perfume.

The leaves of bergamot have been used to brew tea for the past 1000 years.  the essential oil is use to flavor Earl Grey tea, so when you drink a bergamot tea you will recognize the flavor as being a kin.  Oswego tea, as the natural brew is known, 
aids in calming down jittery nerves. Herbs like valerian and chamomile are also added to this tea to increase the relaxation effect. Oswego tea is believed to be an appetizing agent that aids in curing digestion disorders. It can also palliate cramps during menstruation and reduce nausea.  Bergamot tea is also great for combating fevers and chills and also increasing urine output. Since this herbal tea contains the aromatic antiseptic thymol (the oil in thyme that kills germs), it is commonly used by dentists and modern medical practitioners.Therapeutic baths also use bergamot leaves as it is an aromatic herbaceous plant. Just pluck a handful of leaves and tie them in a cloth. Place it in your hot water bath and enjoy the scented water! At times, breathing in the aromatic steam of bergamot leaves aids in relieving throat afflictions like cough and sore throat. Ointments made of bergamot are also used for healing minor insect stings, cold sores and acne.
In cooking, bergamot is used as a pot herb for seasoning and flavoring food items.  it is especially good with sweet dishes like fruits and salads, but is also good in sauces and rubs for meats and poultry. The flowers are edible and used for garnishing yummy vegetable salads!


Bergamot Tea
Preparing bergamot tea is quite simple. Just take a cup of boiling water and pour it onto the bergamot herb. The tea can be prepared from the fresh form, dried form or even the seeds of the herb. Depending on the form used, the recipe will vary slightly. If you are using the fresh plant material, one needs to add ¼ cup of the fresh material to a cup of boiling water and allow it to stand for 5 minutes before straining and drinking it. For all the forms the procedure is the same, with the only difference lying in the quantity of herb form added. If you are using the dried leaves or seeds, add only 2 teaspoons of the herb. For leaves steeep 5 minutes for seeds, steep 10 minutes. To enhance the flavor of bergamot tea add honey or fresh lemon juice to the tea.
Cautions: People with menstrual disorders should not drink this tea. Even pregnant women should keep away from this tea. Bergamot tea should not be consumed continuously. always give your body a break from this tea.  Have it for 8-10 days, then stop having it for one week, then resume. However, if you are drinking it to treat cold, flu, sinusitis, etc. you can have it three times a day, but not beyond four days. Having it in moderate amounts will help your body.

Bee Balm Fruit Salad
6 Tbls. of sugar (superfine if you have it)
¾ cup water
juice of 2 oranges
bee balm leaves
1 cup black currents (or blackberries)
2 cups strawberries, hulled
2 cups raspberries, hulled
bee balm flowers (to decorate)
scented geranium leaves (to decorate)

Put the sugar, water, orange juice and bee balm leaves in a pan over low heat.  Stir occasionally until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil for five minutes to reduce to a syrup. 

Discard the bee balm leaves, and then add the black currents and return to a boil.  Simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside to cool

Add strawberries and raspberries to a bowl and pour cooled mixture over them and gently toss to coat.  Decorate with bee balm flowers and scented geranium leaves.

Pork Fillets with Bergamot Sauce
(serves 2)

2 large pork filets
5 Tbls. butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 ½ Tbls. flour
½ cup chicken or pork stock
4 Tbls. dry white wine
3 ½ Tbls. chopped bergamot leaves
salt & pepper to taste
1 Tbls. double cream

Preheat over to 400 degrees.  Wash the pork filets.  Pat dry and season with salt and pepper and smear with half the butter.  Roast in a shallow greased baking pan for 25 minutes.  Allow to rest 5 minutes before slicing.  Arrange slices on a warmed serving dish.  Prepare the sauce while the fillets are in the oven.  Sweat the shallots in half the butter until soft.  Stir in the flour and cook for about 1 minutes stirring all the time.  Whisk in the stock.  Simmer until it thickens, stirring occasionally.  Then slowly add the wine and 3 Tbls. of chopped bergamot.  Simmer for several minutes then season to taste.  Remove from heat and stir in cream, pour over pork slices and garnish with remaining chopped bergamot.  Great served with mashed potatoes and broccoli.


  1. ooh, i remember this by indian nettle. i've been trying to add to my herb patch. i am going to see if i can find some of this. such a pretty plant. thank you!
    (last posted on the mean reds)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Thank you! We have wild bergamot on our farm and always wanted to use it- now that it's flowering, I'll be harvesting!

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  5. So glad I found this as mine is really taking off this year. My only problem is I put it in a raised planter because we get so much rain, 56 inches a year, that I was worried it wouldn't do well. May have to move it but I love that you give so many ways to use it. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the interesting article. Wild Bergamot flavor is reminiscent if Earl Gray tea, and may even be named for the Oil of Bergamot used in that tea, but true Oil of Bergamot comes from an orange grown in southern France.

  7. Wonderful post! Thanks for all the info! -Marci @ Stone Cottage Adventures

  8. Thank goodness for your sensible information !

  9. I live in North East Texas and my soil test of where I want to put my wild bergamot is pH 6.0, potash and Phosphorus are both high no nitrogen. Under the little top soil is clay soil. What kind of soil do I need to put the bergamot in?

  10. I am wanting to know what type of soil to put my wild bergamot in? Or do I simply dig 12-15 inches down put compost then that 10-10- fertilizer then my plant??

  11. I live in North East Texas and my soil test of where I want to put my wild bergamot is pH 6.0, potash and Phosphorus are both high no nitrogen. Under the little top soil is clay soil. What kind of soil do I need to put the bergamot in?

    1. I have 2-3 acres that grow wild - covered in Bergamot... Soil here in Southwest Missouri is acidic, red clay, gravel/Rock. There is no "hauled in" top soil where it grows, just naturally overgrown and self composted weeds and wild flowers... It grows among strong stands of Queen Anne's " Lace, Black and Brown Eyed Susans - and poison ivy! It loves the soil- can't kill it and it spreads like wild fire - so I am guessing anything similar in full sun would make it quite happy...

    2. Jill thank you for chiming in with related info! I appreciate it.

  12. The pH is good for herbs, bergamot likes a wetter soil, so the clay may be a benefit for it. Nitrogen is not needed by bergamot in large quantity, but you may want to even out the ratio in your soil for the overall health of most plants. I would work compost into the soil around the bergamot over time to improve drainage. Also plant something near it that will provide some shade, especially in Texas. Hope this helps! Marcy

  13. I would not put fertilizer in with the plant, but on the ground around it if you feel you want more foliage, because fertilizer will not make the flowers better only the leaves of an herb like this. You are catching me at a loss with your questions because I am not as familiar with Texas. I would just plant the plant 1 inch deeper than the root ball you have and mulch over top to keep out the heat. I would not add soil into the hole with the plant unless the soil was so hard it would compress the roots like a pot might. Hope this is helpful in some way. Maybe others can also lend info.

  14. Mohican Indians call wild bergamot "number 6" and are harvesting it right now in our current Wisconsin homeland, although our original homeland was New York, both sides of the Hudson River.

  15. Super cool! I love bergamot tea, just got on a spree of it... decided to google and see if I can grow bergamot around here (central New York) Then I realized it's bee balm! I have lots of this growing around my home. That was fantastic to discover, plus the fact that this plant is so native to my home area. XD

  16. Does this grow wel near lemon balm or do you think they would compete too much? Thank you for all the info!

  17. Lemon Balm prefers full sun where as Bergamot tolerates and prefers some shade, but I do not know of any problems with them planting near one another. They are different enough that they are unlikely to cross pollinate to the detriment of either plant.

  18. I live in South Central PA and in a very remote wooded area where we grow more moss than grass, the land is primarily sandy red clay, we have Scarlet Bergamot growing in our front yard that's been growing there ever since I was a little girl. We consider it wild and haven't done maintenance to to it aside from trimming it in the fall when the season is over, I was curious how to treat this "powdery mold" you spoke of, would the leaves still be salvageable for use? I'm not entirely positive if it is mold or not, and how best to preserve the leaves for winter. Many thanks in advance.

    1. The powdery mildew will make any effected leaves unable to be used. You should not dry or use those. The only treatment is to thin out branches in the plant to allow for more airflow and remove any effected leaves. Trimming the plant may do it a world of good. You can also thin the plant by dividing the roots and spreading the plant over a larger area. Good Luck!


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