Meet the Natives: Wild Bergamot

UNLESS YOU LOATHE LAVENDER, it's hard to imagine a better all-around plant than wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. This easy-to-grow member of the mint family is known as Oswego tea because the fragrant, grey-green foliage does indeed make a nice tea. It can also be used in salads or added to bathwater. The showy, pale lavender (sometimes pink or white) blooms will grace your garden all summer if dead-headed, and are very popular with pollinators. And it is said to be deer resistant.

Wild bergamot is native to most of the United States (but not Florida, Washington, California, and Nevada) and to southern Canada, though not to the Maritime provinces. Because it has adapted to such a wide range of conditions, it's best to grow yours from seeds or cuttings obtained locally, as those will be more likely to thrive in your area. It is considered hardy in zones 3-9.

The plant's flowers attract hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and also some moths. The photo above shows a hummingbird moth that visited my wild bergamot almost daily last summer. It's probably designed to be pollinated by species of bees that have long tongues (the better to reach in to those tubular flowers), including several varieties of bumblebees.

The plants grow anywhere from two to five feet tall and will spread both by rhizomes, especially in soft soils, and by seed. However, in my experience wild bergamot is nowhere near as spready as most other mints. Thus far mine has spread just enough to provide a continuous supply of cuttings for me to press upon fellow gardeners, but nowhere near enough to be a problem. When I do have extras, I find that they're great for out-of-the-way corners where I want something attractive to out-compete the weeds.

The plant is happiest in full sun but tolerates part shade. It likes moist soil but is more tolerant of drought than the more common garden bee balm (M. didyma) is. It tolerates fairly poor, heavy soil and will spread less aggessively that way. Plan to divide it every two or three years, as you would most perennials. Give it good air circulation in order to prevent powdery mildew, but if it does get mildew don't worry as the plant will almost certainly survive.

This plant was popular with Native Americans, who used it for a variety of medicinal and culinary purposes.


jodi said...

A perfect butterfly plant, Flora! Mine is still sitting in its pot as I'm in bed-cleaning mode when I can get away from the house to the garden. As soon as I finish cleaning up the big back bed, it's going to get planted out there. Because I have Jacob Cline bee balm there, it should be jubilantly colourful.

We seem to have between a dozen and 18 hummingbirds here this year--it's a riot out there, especially just before dusk as they stuff themselves for the night. Lots of things blooming here now too, so they're well cared for all around.

Nicolas said...

I'd love to get wild bergamot for my garden but don't know where I can get the seeds from in the Ottawa region!

Wild Flora said...

Hi Nicholas,

You can purchase seeds of wild bergamot from Richter's Herbs in Ontario,