Herb of the Month: March 2020

Bergamot

This month we celebrate Bergamot, but not the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) that famously flavours Earl Grey and Lady Grey teas, although our herbs were commonly named bergamot because of the leaves having fragrance reminscent of the bergamot orange. And although the herbs are also commonly known as Bee Balm, they should not be confused with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) which is also sometimes called bee balm because it is so useful for beekeeping.

The herbs we are looking at this month, belongs to the Monarda genus, and in particular I'll be focusing on the three commonly found bee balms in New Zealand: Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), Common (or Wild) Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Lemon Bee Balm (Monarda citriodora).

Bergamot (M. didyma) comes in a variety of cultivars with different coloured flowers, some of the most sought after being 'Squaw', 'Croftway Pink', 'Loddon Crown', and 'Cambridge Scarlet'. Both bergamot and wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) are perennial plants, while lemon bee balm (M. citriodora) is mainly grown as an annual.

All three are used as a culinary herb, fresh or dried leaves can be added to raw or cooked food to add flavour. Flowers are edible and make attractive garnishes in salads, or floated in drinks. Delicious teas can be infused from the leaves and flowers, each giving a specific aroma.

As a medicine, Monarda fistulosa, is prized for its thymol oil and bergamot oil content and is commonly used as a traditional remedy for colds and fevers, treating bronchial irritations, sore throats and headaches. It is stimulant, expectorant and digestive. Monarda didyma is used similarly. Both herbs are great for stomach upsets and digestive problems.

The whole plant - leaves and flowers - can be harvested for use as a medicine, and can be used fresh or dried. Mostly an infusion (tea) is taken internally.

I have just made a Monarda oxymel, steeping wilted stems, leaves, and flowers of Scarlet bee balm to a blend of apple cider vinegar and honey. This remedy is infused for 3-6 weeks after which the herbs can be strained, and the oxymel taken to relieve coughs, sore chests and throats, and ease the general malaise associated with colds and flu as needed.

Monarda didyma, Scarlet bergamot

Lifespan: perennial

Hardiness: fully hardy

Height: 40cm up to 1.2m

Spread: 45cm

Position: full sun

Soil: rich, moist

 

Monarda fistulosa, Wild bergamot

Lifespan: perennial

Hardiness: fully hardy

Height: 1.2m

Spread: 45cm

Position: full sun

Soil: light, dry, alkaline

Monarda citriodora, Lemon bee balm

Lifespan: annual

Hardiness: half hardy

Height: 30cm up to 60cm

Spread: 25cm

Position: full sun

Soil: sandy, rocky

 

The plants are much loved in gardens for their attractive flowers and aromatic leaves. They are wonderful companion plants, and are said to be beneficial planted with tomatoes. The flowers attract bees and butterflies to the garden.



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