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In Anishinaabemowin, sasaapkwaanins, bergamot is also popularly known as bee balm. It’s a native edible and medicinal plant that’s frequented by pollinators (although that’s not why it’s called bee balm!) And it’s a mint, named after the similar tasting bergamot orange that flavors earl grey tea.
Wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa) is rare here. It’s the light purple one below. Oswego-tea AKA scarlet bee balm (monarda didyma) is also rare here. Although essentially native they’re likely an escapee from cultivation if you find them in the wild (I haven’t found them in the wild). There are a couple spots in Ontario that also have spotted bee balm AKA horsemint, which will be covered in a separate article. These mints square stems can help you distinguish them from some lookalikes. Note the leaves prominent in this first picture are actually brambles. Bergamot has paired leaves running down it’s square stem.
Surprisingly, it’s not called bee balm because bees love it, but because this astringent plant is used as a balm to draw out bee stingers.
Edible Uses of Bergamot
The leaves can be cooked as a potherb or you can use a pinch of the leaves as an herb for flavoring soups, stews and meat dishes. The thick stem is edible too, so no worries if you get a bit of that with your leaves. The edible flowers can be nibbled and used as a garnish.
As a bitter-minty tea wild bergamot is named after a different bergamot, citrus aurantium, which gives the popular tea earl grey its flavor. The scarlet bee balm (didyma) is the more citrusy of ours and comes closest to the same flavor as earl grey. Fistula is more on the minty side.
Medicinal Uses of Bergamot
Bergamot is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antimicrobial, Antiseptic, Astringent, Febrifuge, and Carminative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes for mouth and throat infections related to tooth decay, and for bad breath. But do rush to a doctor, because infections there can be especially dangerous.
The purple wild bergamot is preferred medicinally and may be a febrifuge better than lemon balm. The leaf is used for coughs from cold and flu, picked at height of blooming and used fresh or dried. Herbs that don’t suppress a fever are usually preferred.
It’s also used to regulate hormones/menses and is thus not recommended for consumption if you’re pregnant or have tried to conceive during your current cycle. There are many plant medicines a qualified herbalist can concoct to help try to gently balance hormones. Personally I use chasteberry for my specific needs.
Alternative Uses of Bee Balm
Bergamot, especially the oil distilled from it, is popular for perfumes and potpourri.
The scent of the dried leaves repels insects.
Growing Monarda Spp.
I was gifted mine from a friends divisions, but you can also grow bee balm from seed. They are also popular at native plant nurseries. Onplants.ca sells both species potted, and they’ve even got the shorter and shorter-lived spotted bee balm AKA horsemint (link to ONplants, check them out!)
These ornamental plants are a feast for the eyes and pollinators. This months Wood Folk Diary was about ruby-throated hummingbirds, so it’s apt that bee balm has come up. Every year I watch hummingbirds swarming the bee balm.
The purple wild bergamot can be overwhelmed by the scarlet and cultivators rather easily, so when planting it perhaps use a container or contain the more aggressive plants at least. I’m going to have to buy more of it because I planted it close to the scarlet years back. It’s 90% scarlet there now. Living or artificial rhizome barriers are the easiest controls to implement. As well as dividing and sharing with your friends.
Avoid consuming if pregnant or trying to conceive.
Combined with valerian it can cause vomiting.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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