Wild bergamot is one of the loveliest flowering herbs to grace meadows and gardens. Its erect, bushy form grows 2-4 feet high and wide, and 20-50 lavender-pink flowers sprout from each flower head to create a groovy pincushion of spiky, wavy petals resting in a decorative whorl of bracts. Flowering mid-to-late summer, bergamot blooms most profusely in full sun and moderate-to-dry locations. As a member of the mint family and a cousin to peppermint and lavender, monarda has a square stem and deep green leaves that smell of mint. Also known as “bee balm” for its tendency to be swathed in bees, the name “wild bergamot” refers to the plant’s citrus-mint aroma that is similar to that of bergamot oranges. Except for the roots, the entire plant is edible and also has many medicinal uses.
Fistulosa means “hollow,” referring to the flowers’ tubular shape that is favored by long-tongued bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The plant’s long bloom period provides a food source for pollinators, including three specialist bees. Researchers recently observed sand wasps using monarda extensively for nectar. These wasps are predators of the brown stinkbug, a major pest of orchards and vegetable crops. Wild bergamot is also a valuable source of nectar for monarchs.
Plants spread by rhizomes to form large clumps, which should be divided every three years to revitalize the plant. To harvest the flowers and increase blooms throughout the season, remove the flowers just above a leaf junction.
Native habitats include dry fields, rocky woods, thickets, roadsides, and clearings.
Prefers full or part sun.
Grows 2-4’ tall and wide.
Prefers moist-to-dry clay, rocky, sandy, or loamy soils.
Mauve-colored flowers have two lips and are clustered on a domed head 2-3” across, blooming from June to September. The upper lip is long and narrow, and the lower lip is wide and three-lobed.
Green leaves are lance shaped with serrated edges.
Host plant to 11 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including pink-patched looper moth, hermit sphinx, orange mint moth, and raspberry pyrausta. It’s popular with a variety of pollinators, including bees, hummingbirds, and wasps.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used monarda extensively for its antiseptic properties; it’s a natural source of thymol, the primary active ingredient in modern mouthwash formulas. They brewed a tea to help with mouth and throat infections. Monarda is an antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant. It supports the immune system, and many people use it to treat colds and the flu. The leaves are used as an infusion in tea to help relieve insomnia, menstrual pain, nausea, and flatulence.
Individual petals may be sprinkled on salads, used to make lemonades and teas, chopped and used as an herb, or used in jams or jellies. Steep entire flower heads in vinegar for a distinct flavor and color. The leaves may be used similarly to oregano leaves.
Monarda was used as a tea substitute after the Boston Tea Party.
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