By Erin Marissa Russell
Looking forward to growing wild bergamot in the garden this year? Look no further than this comprehensive guide to growing wild bergamot for everything you’ll need to know to plant and care for your wild bergamot, from choosing the perfect location and time for planting to keeping your plants healthy and nurturing them as they grow.
About Wild Bergamot
Just to clear up any confusion, be aware that the wild bergamot plant may also be referred to as bee balm, horsemint, honey plant, Oswego tea, or simply bergamot. Its official names are Monarda fistulosa, Monarda pringlei, and Monarda didyma. There are varieties specifically cultivated for resistance to powdery mildew, called Marshall’s Delight, Jacob Cline, and Raspberry Wine. All these terms are used interchangeably by nurseries and gardeners.
Wild bergamot is native to the eastern part of the United States. The perennial plants can achieve heights of two to four feet and are known for being easy to propagate, whether they’re grown from seeds, cuttings, or root division. The stems are square in shape, producing gray-green foliage and showy flowers that blossom from June to September. The Monarda fistulosa variety blooms in lavender, and Monarda didyma has scarlet-hued flowers. Marshall’s Delight produces vibrant pink blossoms, while Jacob Cline and Raspberry Wine both bloom in deep red.
Historically, bergamot has been put to use in almost countless ways. The Tewa tribe valued wild bergamot because they enjoyed its flavor when cooked alongside meat, while Iroquois preferred using bergamot in beverages. People of many Native American tribes would use bergamot leaves to relieve headaches, chewing leaves into a paste and inserting the chewed plant material into a nostril or using the dried plants to soothe the sneezes that come along with a cold.
As a cold remedy, wild bergamot was also administered as an addition to a hot bath, inhaled in a sweat bath, or applied directly to affected areas in a poultice. Some groups also used bergamot to alleviate headaches, assuage stomach pain, cool a fever, or subdue acne and other skin conditions.
There are plenty of excellent reasons that this plant has such a history of being cultivated by gardeners throughout the ages. Other than the obvious beauty of the plant, there are plenty of other incentives for making wild bergamot part of the garden,
Growing wild bergamot makes your garden appealing to pollinators.
Every garden needs pollinators, especially if you’re growing fruit or vegetables. Wild bergamot is a natural way to attract pollinators to the garden. They don’t call the wild bergamot plant bee balm for no reason!
Wild bergamot repels mosquitoes.
This benefit is surprising because people (and bees) are so fond of the smell of bergamot, but the plant has the opposite effect on mosquitoes. One of the many perks of growing bee balm in your garden is that it has the ability to repel mosquitoes as it grows, making your time working in the garden or enjoying your yard more enjoyable. The plant’s distinctive scent isn’t just repellent to mosquitoes; it also discourages deer from taking a nibble. v
Wild bergamot flowers aren’t just pretty—they’re edible.
The delicate lavender flowers of the wild bergamot plant are good for more than just beautifying the garden. These flowers are edible, which means there are lots of ways you can use them. Aside from the teas, tinctures, and oils we’ll talk more about later, you can simply add the minty-flavored flowers to salads, use them to top a cake, or just add them to a plate as part of an edible garnish for a fancy meal.
Your wild bergamot harvest can be used to make a tasty tea.
Oswego tea made from wild bergamot flowers and leaves was the favorite choice of Americans who turned to native plants to make their tea after losing access to British teas as a result of the Boston Tea Party. Bergamot is also responsible for the lemon-like citrus scent and taste that’s a classic component of the beloved tea blend known as Earl Grey, making it a no-brainer element to include in a tea garden.
Growing Conditions for Wild Bergamot
Wild bergamot is so easy to grow because it’s a member of the mint family, which is notorious for being so prolific it’s almost a pest if not controlled by the gardener. This bountiful productivity is because the bergamot plant spreads through rhizomes, horizontally oriented stems that grow underground, developing shoots and roots along the way.
Wild bergamot is infamous for thriving in all kinds of soil, whether it’s an ideal mix or leans toward sand, clay, or loam. Areas that are drier than usual or stay a little wet are also acceptable planting locations for wild bergamot.
How to Plant Wild Bergamot
Feel free to plant your wild bergamot either in the spring or the fall. Although this hardy plant can grow in areas that are less than ideal, it prefers full sun and rich, well-draining soil. Wild bergamot does require a spot with plenty of air circulation to prevent powdery mildew.
Space plants between 18 and 24 inches apart. After planting, water thoroughly, whether you’re starting with seeds, divided rhizomes, or cuttings.
Care of Wild Bergamot
Once wild bergamot is planted, water regularly to keep the soil it grows in evenly moist. To help soil retain water and prevent the infiltration of weeds, you can mulch around wild bergamot plants.
Deadhead spent flowers from your wild bergamot plants. Removing the blossoms once they’re expended doesn’t just keep plants looking attractive—it helps keep the entire plant healthy because resources are no longer wasted on parts whose time has come to an end.
When you notice that leaves near the bottom of the plant are going yellow, cutting the stems down to three or four inches from the ground can actually get you a second blooming period. You should also do this pruning after the first frost in the fall.
How to Propagate Wild Bergamot
Divide wild bergamot plants every three years in springtime as the center begins to die out, after which the removed edges can be split up and replanted. Even if you’re pleased with the amount and placement of bee balm in your garden, go ahead and divide it. Propagation helps maintain healthy air circulation around the plant and keeps your wild bergamot healthy and thriving.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Wild Bergamot
You shouldn’t struggle much against infestation or illness with your wild bergamot plants since they are so hardy. However, there is one exception: a fungal disease called powdery mildew. Although this fungus is normally a surface-level issue that won’t threaten the life of the plant unless it continues for years, powdery mildew can cause premature leaf drop. (And who wants to see the distinctive gray-green foliage and delicate blooms of wild bergamot defiled with unsightly fungus?)
Plants will display this disease as powdery white splotches on the surface of the leaves. Gardeners can prevent the problem in the first place by selecting a location for their plants that offers plenty of air circulation. Also avoid overhead watering and be sure to thin the stems of plants regularly.
Whenever plants are deadheaded or pruned, be sure to remove trimmed plant matter and debris from the area and dispose of it properly. Times of high humidity can cause an uptick in powdery mildew. If you suspect this is the cause in your garden, reduce watering until things even out.
Should powdery mildew still strike your garden, there are things you can do to stop it in its tracks. Strike back with fungicide, such as ones utilizing neem oil, sulfur, or potassium bicarbonate. As a last resort, you can simply remove and destroy all affected plants to prevent further spread of the disease.
Videos About Growing Wild Bergamot
Wild Bergamot, Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa & M. didyma) how to identify it and its medicinal uses:
This six-minute video covers a lot of ground. Viewers learn all about how to identify wild bergamot (in case you’re looking for it in the wild instead of cultivating your own) and also get a lesson on its various health-related uses.
Bee Balm Herb, Monarda fistulosa
This instructional video discusses the basics of how to grow wild bergamot. Pay special attention to the section about how to harvest the plant for all kinds of applications.
What is Bergamot Used For?
In this three-minute video tutorial, you’ll learn about the uses for your harvested wild bergamot. This guide covers oswego tea, potpourri, culinary uses, and an explanation of why wild bergamot is sometimes called the “honey plant.” In addition, you’ll learn how to identify bee balm when it’s growing in the wild.
Monarda Production Tips | Walters Gardens
This educational feature from Walters Gardens explains how to get the most reward for the time and energy you put into cultivating your wild bergamot plants. The four-minute video gives tips and tricks for increasing the production of your bee balm plants, with strategies you can use from the beginning of the cycle when you’re planting all the way up to the end of the season with methods for overwintering the plants.
Making Herbal Infusions or Teas: Featuring Wild Bergamot w/ The Urban Aboriginal
In this 10-minute lesson, you’ll learn about how to use the wild bergamot you grow in herbal infusions and teas. The presenter uses a mortar and pestle to prepare the bee balm plant for use in the infusion.
How to Make Bee Balm Tincture
This video, just over two minutes long, shows how to use the leaves and flowers of your wild bergamot to create a tincture. A tincture is an infusion of the plant into alcohol so it can be used as a health supplement. Herbalist Maria Noël Groves leads the viewer through the steps to preparing the tincture, from harvesting the bee balm all the way through recommendations for administering the finished tincture.
How to Make Wild Bergamot Oil
Follow along with narrator Zach Kouns as he finds and harvests wild bergamot for use in an oil. He explains where to find the plant (if you’re not growing your own), followed by the steps you can use to make your own wild bergamot oil at home and what the resulting treatment can be used for.
Want to learn more about growing wild bergamot?
The Old Farmer’s Almanac covers Growing Bee Balm
University of Maryland Extension covers Growing Wild Bergamot
Gardening Channel covers Growing Bee Balm
NC State Extension covers Wild Bergamot
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service covers Wild Bergamot
OshKosh Northwestern covers Bee Balm in Summer Landscape