Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wild Bergamot, Bee Balm, and/or Horsemint

Butterfly probing Wild Bergamot flower (c) John Ashley
Butterfly proboscis probing a tubular Bergamot flower
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is a widespread wildflower that is well-known for having a variety of names and uses. This perennial native is also known as Bee Balm, Horsemint, Smoke Hole Bergamot, and Oswego Tea.

It's a member of the mint family, and the genus name, Monarda, is in honor of the 16th Century Spanish botanist, Nicolas Monarde, who published a book in 1574 ("Medical study of the products imported from our West Indian possessions") describing plants of the New World - in spite of the fact that he never travelled here himself. The species name, fistulata, is Latin for tubular, in reference to the individual flower shape.

Wild Bergamot also serves a variety of uses to animals - human and otherwise.

Native Americans recognize four varieties of Wild Bergamot based on four slightly different aromas. When crushed, the leaves exude a fragrant aroma from thymol oil (the antiseptic basis for modern-day mouthwash). Blackfoot Indians used crushed leaves as an antiseptic poultice for minor wounds, and boiled leaves as an infusion for sore throats and toothaches. Today some people still make a tea from Bergamot leaves, which tastes like a mixture of peppermint, spearmint and oregano.

Wild Bergamot is also a common honey plant, and the wildflowers' nectar and pollen are popular with butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Looking like little pom-poms, the tubular flowers bloom from June to September. Our wild species has pink blossoms, and each end-of-branch cluster contains 30-50 flowers.

As an easy to grow native, Wild Bergamot is a popular plant with butterfly gardeners.  They also attracts large numbers of native bees, including several species of endangered bumblebees. Hummingbirds feed on Bergamot nectar, as do a variety of hawk moths. Caterpillars also eat the leaves, and the caterpillars of one species of casebearer moth (Coleophora monardella) feeds only on several Bergamot species, while two others (C. heinrichella, C. monardell) feed exclusively on Wild Bergamot.

Seeds for Wild Bergamot can be found here and here, while rooted plants (like the one in our yard!) can be purchased from our botanist friend, Terry, here.  You can see the wild plants in bloom each summer along low-elevation trails in Glacier National Park, and elsewhere across western Montana.

Bumblebee feeding on Wild Bergamot flower (c) John Ashley
Bumblebee gathering pollen from a Wild Bergamot flower