Munching on Monardas: Exploring Different Varieties of Bergamots

Bergamot flowers color up any garden and make a delicious, spicy tea.

| June/July 1995

“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.

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