“Wherever You Go, There You Are” is the title of a currently popular country song. It also describes the way I feel about bergamots (Monarda spp.) and their recognizable flavor.
I began collecting Monarda species and varieties several years ago, mostly because I enjoy the wonderfully spicy tea that I make from the flowers and leaves. These plants have become some of my favorite tea herbs. Occasionally, I’ll add a new variety to my garden if the flowers are especially showy or if the flavor is outstanding. Unfortunately, the tall, red bergamot known as Oswego tea (M. didyma), which grows so vigorously in cooler, damper parts of North America, refuses to grow for me beyond a year or so; after several tries I’ve given up on that one. However, two pink-flowered cultivars, Marshall’s Delight and Croftway Pink, do well here.
I grew up with the Ozarks native M. fistulosa, which we called bee balm. Profusions of showy lavender flowers attended by hosts of butterflies cover the waist-high plants along country roadsides in late summer. Annual mowing by highway maintenance people keeps other plant competition at bay. Dry, rocky, poor soil is ideal, although this species adapts to diverse growing conditions. I have found it growing near streams in damp soil and in the rich soils of the remnants of virgin prairies in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Other cultivated bergamot species will also grow in a wide range of climates and soils.
I have given my bergamot collection a place at the edge of the garden where not much else has been willing to grow. The spot is well-drained, quite dry in midsummer, rocky, and in full sun. I add some compost annually and mulch the area with pine needles to confuse the weeds, but otherwise I do little else to maintain the bed. The annual lemon bergamot (M. citriodora), often misleadingly called lemon mint, thrives there.
Last fall, I expanded my knowledge of bergamots on a visit to a private garden in Texas. The garden, which has been under development for almost three decades, contains rare and newly discovered plants collected on botanical expeditions in the mountains of Mexico, Central, and South America.
I was especially interested in several new bergamots, as yet unidentified, that were collected from high mountain elevations, conditions that I suspect may imitate many of the growing conditions in my garden in Zone 6, bordering on Zone 7. These plants tolerate dry, rocky, poor soil and high summer temperatures, yet have survived temperatures as low as 4°F. They’re tough plants, good candidates for a wide range of gardening climates.
The garden’s owners test their new plants in a variety of growing conditions, and they make seed available to researchers before introducing the varieties to the plant-growing public. With their permission, I grazed my way through the bergamot plantings, crawling on my hands and knees from one plant to the next, tasting the leaves and flowers. Even though the flavors of the Mexican and Central American varieties differed somewhat from those of the species in my garden, I feel sure I could have identified the genus blindfolded. All had the same peppery, floral flavor present in every one of my own bergamots.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the oregano-like flavor of some of the new varieties. The mildly pepper taste, a background flavor in M. didyma or M. citriodora, predominated in some plants. Some were very hot and peppery, with only a faint hint of the sweet, flowery taste I was familiar with. I began to think of these plants as seasoning herbs. As I munched, I pictured myself using them to enhance chicken or perhaps in dip for vegetables.
I’m trying some of the new bergamots in my garden this season, watching to see what they require and how they grow. I’m also devising recipes to exploit the warming flavors of some of my other bergamots. Bergamot flowers in stir-fry? Sprinkled over baked pork chops? The milder floral flavors would be outstanding with mangoes and oranges in salads and fruit salsas. I can’t imagine why I haven’t used these flowers more in my cooking.
Wherever you go, as the song says, your essence is carried with you: everything that you are up to that point rests with the present moment. Regardless of which monardas you grow, whether they are native to the mountains of Mexico or the Taberville Prairie in central Missouri, the pronounced spicy flavor of bergamot is there. It seems a miracle of nature that you can pick a bergamot leaf anywhere and experience flavors common to nearly all the plants in this richly flavored genus. Monarda meatloaf, anyone?
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.