Wild bergamot / Monarda fistulosa

How does a member of the mint family come to be called the wild version of a citrus tree?

Consider this quote from colonial French traveler Chastellux regarding colonial nomenclature (Cronon, 1983):

“Anything that has no English name has here been given only a simple designation: the jay is the blue bird, the cardinal the red bird; every water bird is simply a duck, from the teal to the wood duck, and to the large black duck which we do not have in Europe”.

The fragrance of this mint plant reminded the colonists of the smell of true bergamot, a citrus fruit, and therefore the plant was referred to as wild bergamot. Oswego tea and beebalm, other common names for Monarda fistulosa, are equally pragmatic. “Oswego tea” was coined when the colonists replicated the western New York Oswego tribe’s use of the dried leaves of the plant for tea. “Beebalm” hints of a resin derived from the plant which may help heal or soothe bee stings (USDA) .

Traditional medicinal use:

Wild bergamot / M. fistulosa has been widely used by many Native American tribes. Numerous tribes used it to treat colds and headaches or to alleviate stomach ailments. Making and drinking tea from the leaves or leaves and flowers was a widespread approach to capturing the benefits of the plants and so was the idea of adding the plant to warm baths or sweat baths. One headache treatment involved inserting wads of chewed leaves into a nostril and one treatment for catarrh and bronchial affections involved gathered and drying the whole plant then boiling it in a
vessel to inhale the volatile oil (Anderson, M., 2003). Making and drinking tea was another approach The plant was also used for seasoning for meats and stews and may have been used as a meat preservative.

“Liberty Tea”: Tea made from plants of genus Monarda was one substitute for true “China” tea used by the Daughters of Liberty in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.

Plant Characteristics:

The tubular shape of the petals are distinctive, with lobes much shorter than the tube and with petals arranged in a whorl. Flowers are solitary and terminal on the
flowering branches and are lavender to soft pink in color. Wild bergamot grows in clumps about 2-4 feet tall and exhibits the alternate leaves with toothed margins on square stems that is characteristic of the mint plant family.

Current use:


Bee balm tea can be made from both fresh and dried leaves. The citrusy flowers fresh flowers can be used as a garnish or a spice. Cut flowers are both attractive and fragrant. Bee Balm was cited as a garden-worthy plant by major American garden writers of the nineteeth century — Buist, Downing, Breck, and Henderson.

Stuff Almost Nobody Knows:

(for the perpetually curious)

“Essential oil” is a natural product extracted from a single plant species often by water or steam distillation. Hydrodistillation involves boiling plant matter in water, a process which produces water vapor and releases volatile chemicals in the plant, and then the capturing produced water vapor and released volatile chemicals in liquid form using a condenser. This captured liquid concentrate of chemical compounds is called the plants “essential oil” and because essential oil floats on water, separation of the essential oil from recaptured water in the condenser is straightforward. The relative ratio of various compounds within a plant’s essential oil makes each plants essential oil unique and a single essential oil may contain over a hundred individual compounds. Because it takes a lot of plant material to make a little essential oil, essential oil can be a relatively expensive product and is often sold by the ounce.

While it is not useful or even possible to extract essential oil from every plant, the mint family stands out as capable of producing some of the most popular and valuable. Although wild bergamot essential oil isn’t widely available, wild bergamot is a plant in the mint family – and more widely known plants in the mint family include thyme, oregano, basil, lavender, rosemary and sage. Something about this family of plants has caused human cultures the world over to recognize and appreciate their culinary and medicinal value.

Essential oils can include high-value compounds. Wild bergamot essential oil includes geraniol, linalool, thymol, and carvacrol in addition to other compounds though the relative fractions of each may vary (Mazza, G., Kiehn, F. and Marshall, H, 1993). These compounds are associated with set of potential benefits wide enough to defy belief. Research is ongoing as to the degree to which these bioactive molecules fight bacterial and fungal infections, act as anti-inflammatory agents, act as a minimum-risk pesticides or sanitizers or even have anticancer effects. Thymol and carvacrol are both known antimicrobials. One interesting study demonstrated thymol to be a potential alternative for a chlorine-based washing solution for fresh produce (Lu and Wu, 2010). Geraniol shows promise as a low-toxicity natural pest control agent and among other results was found to be more effective at deterring mosquitoes than citronella and have larvicidal activity against roundworms of genus Contracaecum and marine nematodes Anisakis simplex (Chen, W. and Viljoen, A., 2010). Linalool is the molecule mostly responsible for the smell of lavender, is widely used in industry as a fragrance and may help manage anxiety. The pure versions of these powerful chemicals are not safe for household use. For example, carvacrol is demonstrated to have effective antibacterial activity against Salmonella Typhimurium at concentration levels of less than .001%.

Methods for synthesizing some of these compounds are known, utilized and generally cheaper than isolating their naturally derived and chemically identical counterparts. However, the idea of cheap and renewable feedstocks for high-value chemicals should not be dismissed. In 2007, the NRCS designated roughly 40% of all crop land in the United States as highly erodible. Farmers which have land classified as highly erodible are required to have and execute a soil conservation plan for highly erodible acreage to remain eligible for any premium subsidy paid by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) for any policy or plan of insurance. Perennial plants excel at soil retention due and so a permanent planting of perennials partially harvested annually could be a good fit for land requiring a soil conservation plan. In many areas, wild bergamot requires minimal care or inputs. Wild bergamot essential oil can be produced at a rate of around 1% of the weight plant material used (Mazza, Kiehn, and Marshall, 1993), comparable the essential oil yield of other mint family members. The mint family, already providing us with what may be the majority of our finest culinary herbs, may have even more to offer.


Black Squirrel Farms strives for accuracy but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. We’re happy to update our information if needed. Please contact us if you spot an error or have a suggested edit, update or information inclusion. Help is welcome.


References:

Anderson, M. on USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center, Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa L., https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_mofi.pdf, 2003

Chen, W. and Viljoen, A. Geraniol — A review of a commercially important fragrance material, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0254629910001559 in: South African Journal of Botany, Volume 76, Issue 4, p. 643-651, 2010.

Mazza, G., Kiehn, F. and Marshall, H.  Monarda: A source of geraniol, linalool, thymol and carvacrol-rich essential oils. p. 628-631. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1993/V2-628.html In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York, 1993.

Lu, Y. and Wu, C. Reduction of Salmonella enterica contamination on grape tomatoes by washing with thyme oil, thymol, and carvacrol as compared with chlorine treatment. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21219747/, National Library of Medicine, Pubmed.gov, 2010.

Cronon, W. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, New York, 1983.