Looking for an addition to your garden or yard that is all upside and no downside? You can't go wrong with bergamot!
Wild bergamot or horse mint (Monarda fistulosa) is a native plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae). All members of this family have square stems, a characteristi shared with a very other few families, like the Verbena family. Bergamot is naturally found in undisturbed dry to moist prairies, glades, savannas and even open woodlands in Missouri, and sometimes persists in disturbed sites. The "Flora of Missouri" by Julian Alfred Steyermark, reports it across the state and the USDA reports it in all of Canada and mainland United States, up to 5,000 feet elevation, excluding Alaska.
This is a plant that should be in every farm and garden, because, in addition to being edible, it is decorative, attractive for butterflies and adaptable to a wide range of sites from dry to moist and sunny to shady. If that wasn't enough, it is easy to grow. As a perennial plant, it goes dormant in the winter and new foliage emerges in early spring, so there is no need to replace it every year like non-native annuals.
Depending on the site, it can grow 36-48 inches tall. It forms clumps, so through the years new shoots are developed around the main plant. It is not necessary to add soil amendments to grow this plant, because they can make the plants grow even taller. Douglas Ladd mentioned in his book "Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers" that flowers are produced from early spring to early fall, again depending on the site where it is growing. We have bergamot in the front yard, so to reduce its size, I prune them in early spring, still blooming in the summer.
Gregory L. Tilford mentions in his book "Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West" that bergamot can be used in recipes calling for oregano. Like oregano, it should be used sparingly because it has a strong and sometimes bitter taste. The best parts to collect are young leaves and flower buds, but drying the leaves can reduce the bitterness of older foliage. He adds bergamot contains tymol, an antiseptic compound used in mouthwash products, and the Blackfeet Indians used the mashed leaves to treat skin infections. Bergamot can be used fresh or dried. When dried it can be stored for long periods.
Bergamot is widely used in prairie restorations and butterfly gardens. It is recommended for native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds by Grow Native!, a program under the umbrella of the Missouri Prairie Foundation. It is the most common of the Monarda species across the country and is a favorite for butterfly gardens because it provides abundant nectar and the blooms are long-lasting. Bergamot can be established with other native edibles, like mountain mints, goldenrods and milkweeds, which are a must for our Monarch butterflies.
"The Flora of Missouri" describes seven species of Monarda in Missouri, six being natives and one introduced to Missouri. The native ones, besides wild bergamot, include bee balm (Monarda bradburiana), which is naturally found in more shaded habitats. Much less common is dotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) that grows mostly in sand prairies and has a limited range of distribution in Missouri, and basil bee balm (Monarda clinopodia) with even more limited range, reported only in southeast Missouri in Butler county adjacent to Arkansas. Two annuals include lemon mint (Monarda citriodora), found in 12 counties scattered in Missouri, and the spotted bee balm (Monarda pectinata),only found in Jackson County bordering Kansas. The flower color of all these natives is lilac to purple. A native to the United States but not historically found in Missouri is another bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma), also called scarlet bee balm for its red flowers. All are edible.
All Monarda species are susceptible to powdery mildew that looks like gray-white powder on the leaves. To avoid this in gardens, plant them under full sun and dry sites and prune them if they are too crowded in shaded areas.
I was happy just using leaves of bergamot and relatives for teas or to flavor jellies until I learned from Ellen Zachos' book "The Wildcrafted Cocktail" about using these plants to prepare some special drinks. I knew then I was not using bergamot to its fullest potential. Since it is so common and easy to grow, I feel fine pinching leaves and flowers from the plants in my yard. In fact, by pinching the leaves in early spring through summer, the plants will continue producing tender leaves and remain shorter and tastier. Ellen recommends using the leaves to prepare syrup that could be the base for alcoholic beverages. She uses bergamot and Oswego tea.
If you have these plants in your farm or garden, you can start gathering leaves in early summer to prepare your own goodies. If you do not have them yet, wild bergamot and other native bee balms are readily available in local native plant nurseries.
What's not to like? Beautiful, tasty, maintenance free and great for butterflies and pollinators! No pain, all gain!
Native plant events near you
Grow Native is hosting a native plant sale from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, March 24 (rain or shine) at the Runge Conservation Center in Jefferson City. At this event, bergamot and a myriad of other native plants will be available from nine native plant growers. For the first time at this event, jellies and jams flavored with bergamot and other native edible plants will be for sale by Blue Fox Farm in Ashland. Their blackberry-bergamot confit jam alone would be worth the trip. If you need more information on this and other native plant sales, visit grownative.org.
On Sunday, March 25, The Many Uses of Native Plants for Your Yard hosted by the Office of Sustainability of the City of Columbia will take place at the Unite4Health Community Garden, 1005 W. Worley St. in Columbia. I will be there with stormwater engineer Dillon Flesner and community conservationist Danielle Fox. Learn how to use native plants in edible landscaping, stormwater mitigation and wildlife habitat. Food samples prepared with native plants will be served.
I will be offering more classes about native edibles in April and one about native plants for pollinators in May at the Career Center in Columbia. For more information, check their course catalog at cacc.asapconnected.com/default.aspx.
Dr. Nadia Navarrete-Tindall is a native plants specialist, educator and independent consultant. She offers training about native edible plants and other topics on native plants, in English and Spanish, as well as consultation on native plants for yards and acreages. She is an advisory board member for Grow Native. She lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband Randy and their dog Bonita. She can be reached at email@example.com or on her Facebook page "Native Plants and More."