If space is a premium in your garden then bergamot may be the herb for you. It loves a light shady spot with even a little bit soggy soil, unusual for a herb, but great for those awkward spots in your garden.
Start bergamot by seed or from plugs. It will take around 14 days for your seed to germinate and then a further 60 days until you can start to harvest the leaves. So a quick turnaround for this perennial bush that can reach heights of 5 feet. Often called bee balm due to it’s ability to attract all pollinators to your garden.
Did I mention that you can also make herbal teas from the leaves?
A History Of Bergamot
Bergamot is a native herb to the Eastern part of America and Northern Europe. It has a history that can seem confusing as it goes by a fair few different names. So we have Bergamot, Monarda, Bee Balm, horsemint, honey plant, Oswego tea or Wild Bergamot. There is also confusion between this plant and the bergamot orange tree. Totally different plants as our bergamot is a herb.
As a native herb to the United States it falls to the indigenous Americans to have a strong history of using the leaves in medicinal practices. From the Blackfoot who used it as a poultice for wounds and skin infections recognizing the antiseptic qualities. There has been documented use of bergamot leaves for stomach upsets and bronchial infections. The active ingredient that has been brought into modern use is thymol. Used daily by millions in modern mouthwash.
During the Boston Tea Party when traditional tea was dumped into the harbor to avoid paying the British their taxes the Americans turned to bergamot to make Oswego tea. A great way to try to compensate for not having a cuppa, but then this could be where the confusion for Earl Grey tea comes in as this is flavored with bergamot orange and not bergamot leaves.
Growing Bergamot Monarda didyma From Seed
Choose your seeds based on the color of the plant you would like. Wild Bergamot (Monarda Fistula) has short flowers which are light lavender/lilac in color. Lemon Bergamot (Monarda Citriodora) is lavender colored on spikes of cylindrical flower stalks. Scarlet Bee balm (Monarda Didyma) is commonly known as crimson beebalm and it is vibrant scarlet reds and is dark, vibrant and a great contrast to lighter flowers. See to the bottom of the article for where to buy in the UK.
- 6-8 weeks before the last frost plant your seedlings in trays in a heated propagator. Choose a potting medium that is peat-free and with good drainage. Sow your bergamot seeds thinly and very lightly cover with soil.
- Mist your seeds well and introduce to a steady temperature from your heat mat, or heated propagator. Germination of bergamot seeds takes around 14 days and you will get a good germination rate with bee balm.
- Once the seedlings are a little larger prick out the weaker plants. Bergamot will need a process of division and separation through it’s life and does not do well with overcrowding. Bee balm will grow in hardiness zones 3-9 but a little bit of acclimatization may be required given your local climate conditions. In the UK we would introduce the seedlings to the day time temperature quite early on, but bring inside a greenhouse to avoid temperatures approaching freezing.
- When they are larger enough to plant out they will need their space. Approximately 18 inches will keep your bergamot happy and with enough access to daylight. Choose a spot which does not get full sunlight (no more than 8 hours a day) but one with dappled sun or partial shade. Bergamot will appreciate some well rotted manure to be added to the soil prior to planting.
- Water retention is key to your bee balm thriving and adding mulch will solve a lot of problems in one go. You can use comfrey or borage as grown in the garden and this can be a great way to stay affordable and organic.
- Water frequently through dry periods and always water towards the base of your bee balm. Bergamot will not thank you for scorched leaves. Introduce Epsom salts to your watering if you are looking to improve foliage and flowering rates.
- Bee balm is not an evergreen and you can collect leaves in Spring and Summer. Go sparingly in Spring as you want the plant to really thrive. Flowers can be harvested as soon as they open, however it is nice to give some food to the bees and butterflies first.
- In the first year cut right back to ground level as the Autumnal weather starts, this may not be in Fall or Autumn in reality but more towards Winter. You will see some dying off of the leaves, but you want the herb to recover and go dormant over Winter ready for a Spring flourish. In the second year you will need to think about division to maintain the health of the plant and allow it to really spread.
Growing from seed is a lovely process but you can get a quicker success rate from division, although obviously you need an original plant to do this! So think about bergamot as a great gift for fellow gardeners as once planted it is pretty much indestructible.
How To Propagate Bergamot Bee Balm By Division
This is an almost inevitable process as your bergamot will thrive with division and actually need it for healthy growth. Bergamot is a clumping perennial so the centre can become woody and die back a fair bit. This makes it look like a crown of stalks. You can be forgiven for thinking that your cat has been nesting in the middle!
Every two to three years you will need to take action and divide your main plant.
- In early spring just as new growth is starting to push out, have a look for signs of this crown feature. Dig around your bergamot herb with a fork to loosen the soil.
- Then lift it slightly and take a sharp spade to cut through the bee balm where you would like to take divisions. These cuttings will look obvious as around the outside there are clumps of new growth. Try to keep it to these naturally forming plants.
- A good alternative to a sharp spade is a knife to actually cut through. This can be more accurate as long as you make sure to cut away from yourself as garden accidents are real! Make sure to fully life the bergamot with your fork to make this even easier.
- Replant your bee balm in any new location and back fill the hole left by the cuttings.
- You can use this as a chance to pot up your bergamot and give as gifts. Bee balm will grow well in a pot with free draining soil and plenty of mulch added to the top layer.
Powdery Mildew And Bergamot
Bergamot is pretty much pest and disease free. Very much the hardy perennial for all gardeners. However powdery mildew can strike. It displays as white splotches on your leaves. This can cause premature leaf drop and this is a real shame as you will notice your shrub looking patchy.
There are ways to avoid this issue; Only water to the base of the plant, reduce watering during humid periods, dead head spent flowers and remove lack lustre foliage, keep a good mulch in place. However if you have had powdery mildew in the past it may well return.
A sad reality is that when it takes hold no amount of fungicide will save you. So remove the plants entirely and do not add to your compost bin, instead put out for the council to remove and incinerate. This will stop the problem progressing to other more tender plants.
Companion Planting Bee Balm
Bergamot Monarda will thrive in USDA zones 3-9 and most of Europe. They then become a little on the invasive side. This is because they are from the mint Lamiaceae family. So careful planning must take place before planting out. We grow ours within a large contained flower bed. This gives us security that it won’t become a weed, but that we also have that Cottage Garden appeal.
- Angelica is a great perennial to plant with bee balm as it loves a good mulch and similar watering and levels of sunlight hours. This is paramount when planning a garden that will thrive with little human intervention. Many plants that are umbellifers will really form a stunning contrast to your sea of color from bergamot. Angelica will stand proud of your monarda and the flowers resemble an umbrella on a windy day where they have been blown inside out. Small flowers in green, yellow and white clusters. When you approach you will be able to literally hear the bees as well.
- Large Alliums are wonderful as well. The pom pom of white, purple or lavender flowers sticking up through an ocean of color will provide a classic contrast and you can kind of make it more formal with your allium placement or dress it down by being a little bit more chaotic. Just be aware of bulbs when you are tending to you bergamot for division purposes. It is often a good time to do this before foliage really starts to be put out, but when you can identify where your bulbs are, so a little shoot is emerging.
- Phlox and marsh mallow are ideal country cottage garden plants and will work very well with the lavender bergamot that will share a color palette. Use vibrant bee balm to give a stark contrast to the gentle nodding stalks of flowers.
- Ox Eye Daisies are border fillers that will fall on to the pathway as well as your bergamot. It gives a very natural look to a path that may otherwise seem rigid in a garden. Perfect for matching height and as they will both love a little shade as well as full on sunshine this is a match made in heaven.
Harvesting Bee Balm
To harvest bee balm leaves it can be as simple as waiting until the plant is large enough to cope with you taking a few leaves. You will need between 5-6 leaves for a decent pot of tea. This should be between 60-90 days from sowing seeds. If you have chosen to but potted plants then it will be a much quicker return on investment. Spring to late Summer.
Pinch the stalk of the leaf between thumb and finger and snap off. Choose a spot that is overcrowded. Make sure to choose leaves that are free from pests or any beneficial eggs from our pollinators. Harvest once the first dew has dried off, but before the heat of the sun has had a chance to lift the essential oils.
Harvest flowers as they start to go over. This allows the bees to have enjoyed them as much as you. If you want fresh flowers for drinks etc you will need to harvest them very shortly after they blossom. My advice is to take a mixture of both as then you are giving to the pollinators and not taking away from yourself.
How To Dry Bee Balm
Your main harvesting period is Spring to Summer. However you will benefit from cutting your plant right back in late Autumn/Early Winter. You can hang and dry these leaves. As you cut the stems back shake them to remove any wildlife. You can transfer the beneficial ones to an area that will keep them alive, but most will have burrowed for the Winter. We have some very ‘helpful’ free range chickens who will take a lot of interest in what we are doing and similarly so do the wild birds.
- To air dry your bergamot leaves do not remove from the stalks. Instead bundle together in bunches of no more than 6-8 stems.
- Tie with an elastic band, it is important to use a band as you want a little bit of air to circulate around the stalks, whereas twine will restrict that a little too much.
- Use a paperclip to make a hook and you can push it through the band. Hang your bergamot bunches in a cool, dark but airy location. One where you won’t be constantly bumping in to the stems as well.
- After three weeks check to see if they have dried out completely. When this happens the stems will snap and not bend when you apply pressure to them. If they are bendy, leave them to dry for a few more weeks.
Now this method is time consuming and due to the cold and damp of Winter it can also be unpredictable. You can easily lose your entire years harvest to mold and bacteria that isn’t deterred by the arid heat of Summer. For this reason I prefer to use a dehydrator. Initially I was a little hesitant to go electric, however it gives consistent results and when drying leaves in the numbers you will with bee balm it is almost essential.
TOP TIP – Here is a link to the make and model we use, it is mainly an article about why we chose this model. So as long as yours does all of those things you will be fine and won’t need to purchase a specific herb dehydrator. Also ours was a budget model so if you are looking to buy a new machine you do not need to spend a lot of money, and you can share between households!!
- Hopefully you will be converted to using a dehydrator for bee balm drying mainly due to how quick this process is. Strip your stems to have your leaves individually. Discard any that are showing signs of black spots or other imperfections.
- Wash them under a cold running tap to remove any pests or wildlife that didn’t evacuate during harvesting. Pat dry with a clean towel. You could also use a salad spinner for this.
- Place the leaves in a single layer on your dehydrator shelves. We have a five layer one that has holes to allow for circulation of the air, meaning that each layer will dry at the same time. So do not over fill your shelves as this will mean your bergamot will not get an even dry and it just adds a bit more effort on your part.
- Set to the lowest heat and pop the timer on for three hours. Our model will sound the timer and turn off the heat when the three hours is up. With herb drying so much depends on how much moisture was stored in the leaves and variable out of your control. After three hours you can then test to see if the leaves are have a paper like feel to them. Crunchy but not bendy is the feel we are going for. If they are not there yet, pop them on for another hour.
- Keep returning until they are dried fully. Then store in an airtight container that you label up fully! Make sure to include the date you have dried them as well as ‘bergamot /bee balm leaves’.
- The leaves will retain their flavor for around a year, which is perfect timing as your bergamot will be back in full flourish by then!
Making Earl Grey From Bergamot
I am including this here as there is so much confusion between bergamot the herb and bergamot the citrus tree. To make early grey you will need leaves from the citrus tree and not the leaves of bee balm.
This can be as simple as using an everyday tea bag and adding 5-6 bergamot leaves. They can be fresh or dried and added to a teapot, filled with boiled water and allowed to steep for 5-10 minutes. The steeping time depends on how strong you like your tea, similarly you can add more leaves to give more of a zesty boost.
Uses For Bee Balm Bergamot Monarda
Bergamot Monarda has a zesty citrus flavor to the leaves and although the seeds and roots have uses in herbal medicines the leaves are used to flavor herbal teas. It has undertones of that earthy sage flavor, almost musk like. The zestiness is akin to peppermint in many ways, but just as a background note, not as the whole flavor.
Yes, bee balm does make a healthy herbal tea, but a strong one. This is best when mixed with other herbal infusions. You will need one teaspoon of dried leaves per cup of tea and we recommend mixing with other flavors that can take that strength. A peppermint or nettle tea mix would be ideal.
Bergamot is also known for it’s calming qualities so making up a bath soak with dried bee balm leaves is perfect. Use a muslin cloth to make a ouch and pop a tablespoon of bee balm leaves with two teaspoons of dried lavender. Allow to steep in your bath alongside you! It’s like have a bath in a relaxing cup of tea, but once you get your head around that it becomes a nice part of your evening routine.
Where To Buy Monarda
Monarda Didyma”Panorama Mix” Bee Balm
- You can buy Monarda Citriodora Bergamot seeds via this link, this comes in a pack of 50 seeds, so ideal to pot on as gifts.
- For your smaller flowers that will fill a space go for Monarda Fistula, wild bergamot seeds via this link. The flowers are larger but they are individual rather than on larger spikes. This makes them lovely for cut flower arrangements as they are a delicate lavender/lilac color.
- For deep reds and long flowers periods get some Monarda (Bee Balm) didyma Panorama Red Shades Seeds from Grow Your Own Secret Garden.
- How To Grow Angelica In The UK
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- How To Make A Bee Friendly Herb Garden
- A History of Tea: The Life and Times of the World’s Favorite Beverage by Laura C Martin
- How To Make Herbal Infusions
- Mullein A Herbalists Guide To Sow, Grow & Harvest Verbascum
If any plant can convince you that you don’t need full sunshine and perfect soil for a vibrant display of color to attract bees and pollinators, it should be bergamot. A stunning compact herb with lots to offer. Hopefully you are feeling encouraged to give it a try? And for a few pounds for a packet of seeds you could really brighten up a shady spot in your backyard.