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What Is Wild Bergamot?

Rebecca Cartwright
Rebecca Cartwright

Wild bergamot, or Monarda fistulosa, is a plant in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Other common names include bee balm and butterfly bush. It is widely planted for the color and fragrance of the flowers as well as because it is attractive to wildlife. A perennial, it is a North American native found in all of the lower 48 US states except Florida and California, and in most of Canada. It has lavender, white, or pink blossoms and gray-green aromatic leaves that can be used to make mint tea.

The 2 to 5 foot (about 0.6 to 1.5 m) stems of wild bergamot grow from the ground every year. They are square and hairy, with many branches. The plant occupies a space about as wide as it is tall.

Bees are very attracted to wild bergamot.
Bees are very attracted to wild bergamot.

Wild bergamot leaves grow along the stems in pairs, one on each side of the stem, and are slightly toothed. They are oval, sometimes with a sharp tip, and average 4 inches (about 10 cm) long. The leaves are light to dark green and occasionally have a yellow or red tinge.

Vividly colored blossoms grow profusely for about a month in mid-to-late summer. The flowers are untidy globes, usually 2 to 4 inches (about 5 to 10 cm) in diameter. Each globe is a cluster of tubular florets. Their strong fragrance and abundant nectar attract not only bees, but butterflies and hummingbirds.

Wild bergamot oil.
Wild bergamot oil.

Wild bergamot can be grown in a wide range of settings. It is recommended for US Department of Agriculture zones 3 to 8 and grows best in full to partial sun. The plant tolerates many soil types, from moderately sandy to clay, as long as the soil is neither waterlogged nor completely dry. It will also grow in moderately acid to moderately alkaline soil.

Powdery mildew is often a problem, particularly in rainy areas. Providing good air circulation by not crowding the plant will help prevent or limit powdery mildew. The plant reproduces by both seed and underground rhizomes and will form a larger and larger clump each year. Wild bergamot can be an aggressive spreader in some settings, but is not prohibited as a garden plant in any US state.

In the past a tea made from wild bergamot leaves was used by American Indians for both upper respiratory and stomach problems. A poultice of the leaves was also used for some skin conditions. The leaves have sometimes been used to make perfume.

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    • Bees are very attracted to wild bergamot.
      By: artist_as
      Bees are very attracted to wild bergamot.
    • Wild bergamot oil.
      By: wolfelarry
      Wild bergamot oil.