Thursday, July 1, 2010

BUMBLING THROUGH THE BERGAMOT

In the house where I grew up, Mom had thick stands of Wild Bergamot growing around the front porch. The plants did well, surrounding and hiding the wall of the 12x12 foot concrete platform—and at four feet tall, were level with the top. When her bergamot was in bloom, the view from the street gave the impression that anyone standing on the porch or sitting in the big metal glider beside the front door, was suspended on a lavender cloud.
Mom's bergamot was especially luxuriant on either side of the five steps leading up to the porch deck, a pale pinkish-mauve hedge whose branches and flowers draped over the end of the walk and the steps because she never trimmed their ends until long after the blooming period finished. The result of this studied shagginess was twofold—first in keeping with Mom's abundant-to-overflowing cottage-garden style, and second, in that day or night when her bergamot was in bloom, anyone ascending or descending the steps couldn't help but brush the plant tips with their legs…which in turn released the aromatic oils, instantly filling the air with a distinctive and delightful scent.
Often on a July morning, I would take my coffee and go sit on the steps between these clumps, groggily sipping the life-inducing brew while savoring the bergamot's minty-citrus fragrance. The air would be roaring with bees who appeared to adore bergamot nectar and would happily—and noisily!—snuffle their way through the cascading florets as if it were the most heady drink on the planet. Now and then a hummingbird would zoom in for a sunrise libation, though often first taking the time to zip over and hover a few inches off the end of my nose, giving me what was clearly an investigatory eye as if trying to decide whether this pitiful under-caffeinated lump was as harmless as he appeared.
Later on, when—thanks to my love affair with smallmouth bass—I began poking along certain stretches of the upper river on whose banks I now live, I came across patches of bergamot growing wild in the remaining bits and overlooked pieces of the old prairies which can still be found. A quick brush of my hand through the blooms released the familiar perfume. But it didn't quite look like the bergamot in Mom's yard, being a bit more purplish. After thumbing through my copy of Newcomb's, I discovered it was simply Purple Bergamot, which was a natural hybrid of wild bergamot and bee-balm.
These three members of the bergamot clan—Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, Purple Bergamot, Monarda media, and Bee Balm, Monarda didyma—are all native to Ohio. Bee Balm is the most showy, with its scarlet blooms. It's also the least common hereabouts, though is often grown in gardens. You may know this eye-catching plant as Oswego Tea, a name harkening back to the Oswego Indians who lived along the shores of Lake Ontario and brewed a strong drink from the plant's leaves.
Bergamot is a member of the mint family. The genus was named for Spanish botanist Nicholas Monades (1493-1588) who, in 1571, published a book containing the first picture of this New World plant.
Mom would always dry a gallon or two of bergamot leaves for tea making, spreading them on newspapers in the hot attic for a day or two before packing and sealing the dried leaves in Mason jars which she stored on a cupboard shelf. Bergamot tea is delicious—tasty with a bit of honey or sugar. A good drink on a winter's night or served iced with a slice of lemon at a summer picnic.
In addition to being used for tea, bergamot has a long herbal history, being employed for everything from headaches and sore throats to insect stings and bites. You can also use the leaves and tender plant tips to add to salads, make bergamot jelly, or spice up a pot roast.
Yesterday, I spent a number of hours poking through a prairie not far from here—a sunny expanse now spattered with a dozen or more various plants in full and lovely flower. Chief among these dazzling blooms were acres of Wild Bergamot, looking and smelling just like the bergamot Mom grew, though perhaps of a slightly lighter hue.
Memories flooded my thoughts as the wonderful scent filled my nostrils. The rich field was loud with bees, still as seemingly intoxicated by the plants as ever. Now and then the sweet poignancy of the place loosened some forgotten recollection, touched some hidden corner within which caused my eyes to fill with moisture…and for a minute or two afterwards, I simply joined those bees, bumbling through the bergamot.
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18 comments:

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

Oh my this is a lovely and inspiring and emotional writing. I loved walking about with you in the prairie of Bergamot - and I learned things I never knew about the types and wonderful aromas. I so loved your memory of your Mom's Bergamot and I am sure the tea is wonderful, hot or cold. I could picture the flowers drying on newspaper in a sun streaked attic with wood slats and must and creaking stairs to and fro. I could see you.

Our sense of smell is the sense that provokes the most memory - and your wonderful tribute to Mom and Bergamot is proof. :-)

Love to you my friend
Gail
peace and hope.....

Wanda said...

Everyone should be so lucky to have the occasion of "bumbling through the bergamot"...I have a small patch of red bergamot(Monarda didyma)...wish it were a field !

Scott said...

I guess that bergamots are your madelaines, huh? Very nice images.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I really think that smell is the most potent of our senses Jim when it comes to jogging the memory. Bergamot is such a pretty flower - I wonder what Bergamot Honey tastes like.

Bonnie said...

What an exceptional piece of writing! I was charmed on every level. Loved the image of your mother's porch floating on a cloud of lavender.

I taught my children to recognize birds, trees, flowers etc. while they were very young and one of the flash cards I had made of flowers was of a purple bergamot. One child was about 18 months and the other 3 yrs. and I still recall them repeating "pur - pul - ber - ga - mot". A sweet recollection for me. Anyway, I digress.

I think bergamot is one of the leaves with which they make Earl Grey tea and which gives it its distinctive perfume.

You should compile some of your posts into a book. While the content is always exceptional, I would read just to slip between your silken words for a moment now and then.

George said...

One of the things I like best about your postings, Grizz, is that I always leave with some interesting piece of knowledge. Today, you have introduced me to bergamot, which, I must confess, I knew nothing about before reading your piece. It is easy to get caught up in the great expanse of nature, but it is equally rewarding to just focus on a single species like bergamot. Thanks for filling this little gap in my knowledge base.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Bergamot is a neat plant—as are most of the mints. The early associations we form with smells do stay with us all our lives, instantly invoking that long-gone time and place with only whiff. Yesterday, on that bergamot-filled prairie, it was all I could manage sometimes to not allow my memories to overwhelm me.

I'm glad you liked the piece…and I hope things are going as well as possible with your Mom and the energy toll I know it's taking on you and your family. You remain in my prayers.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Wanda…

I planted several different bergamots earlier this year, but it will take them a while to get going. I hope they do well, even though the prairie—and several others—are just up the road. I want to be able to greet the mornings once again, coffee cup in hand, in a patch of my own bergamot.

I know your red blooms are lovely…

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Scott…

One of them, anyway. I hope you liked the piece. Thank you for your kind words re. pix.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I'd agree that scent is our most potent memory-jogger…but I wonder why, seeing as how we employ it so little in our daily lives. I do know that in a classroom setting, scent can be used to help implant material for later recall—at which time it is helped by another whiff of the same scent. A sniff of peppermint oil, for example, as a student is trying to memorize a long passage of poetry…and a second sniff of peppermint when starting to recite the poem a month or even a year later. It does work.

I don't know what bergamot honey would taste like—but bergamot tea and jelly are excellent.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bonnie…

Thank you for such lovely praise re. the writing…I'm truly flattered. I simply try my best to paint the sort of word pictures I like to read. I write for myself to share with others. Does that make sense? Some days I miss the mark entirely. Now and then I come close. Nothing pleases me more than to know you've read and enjoyed a piece.

I love that you began teaching your children about nature via flash cards—and that purple bergamot was among the flower cards. And please…digress all you want here, share, comment, pluck at a thread and follow it off into a darkling wood. I don't care. In fact, I encourage you to do so.

Finally, for a long time I, too, assumed oil of bergamot, from the flowers (actually, leaves and stems) was used to flavor Earl Grey tea. In fact, it is oil from bergamot oranges, which are grown around Bergamo, Italy; apparently their scents are quite similar, which is why the flower received the name. Bergamot tea (technically, an infusion, since true tea is always made from tea leaves, or at least parts of the tea plant) is made from bergamot flowers; Earl Grey tea (the tea part made from tea leaves) is flavored with bergamot from bergamot oranges. Now there's a piece of useless trivia, huh?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

George…

You know what I've finally figured out? That almost anything is fascinating if you look close enough. I think that's why I like close-up photography—because it makes me look close, examine, see the details…and it's always interesting. Too often the "long" look, is little more than an overview, which is like a first cousin to a brief glance. Don't just look at the woods, look at a tree, and the bird in that tree, and then look at just one single feather on that bird. There's a world of wonder in that single feather.

I'm not much of a teacher. I'd just like to think I occasionally turn the latch of a door for someone. So much of what I've learned—which is only a drop in the bucket compared to what I have yet to learn—I've learned because someone took pity on this foolish scribe and pointed out the practical, the unique, and fairly regularly, the obvious.

Nature is like a big city. The city has lots of people, but the city isn't the story. Neither are people the story. The person, the one individual, that little guy standing on the corner with an umbrella in one hand and a goose under his other arm…now that's the story.

Rowan said...

This is a lovely post and full of interesting information. I love bergamot but it doesn't seem to like my garden unfortuately. I've never had the pleasure of seeing it growing wild as it isn't a native plant here, it must look beautiful.

George said...

That was an absolutely beautiful response to my comments, Grizz, worthy of a headline posting itself. I so agree with you, especially about the guy on the city corner with the umbrella in one hand and a goose under his other arm. That's where life takes place -- one person, one moment in time, one small place of unexpected holy ground.

Bonnie said...

How interesting! Thank you for that clarification re: Earl Grey tea.

I'm with George. It is delightful to come and read your words, but the value added is that I learn so much! Thank you.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

I wish you could get it established in your garden—I know you'd really like its looks and scent. It's a neat plant. I've never found it to be at all difficult to grow, though it prefers a sunny location and not overly damp soil. You're certainly not too far north or anything. Do other mints do well there?

Bergamot certainly is beautiful, and comes in all sorts of hues, from pale pink through lavender to purple, magenta to scarlet. All have that lovely distinctive fragrance.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

George…

I couldn't agree more, and you've put it exactly right: "That's where life takes place -- one person, one moment in time, one small place of unexpected holy ground."

I would only add that re. nature, sometimes it is that one flower or bird—not just a single species, but an individual of that species—that opens a secret door, personifying and in part explaining the mystery, leaving you both intrigued and enlightened, forever different because you've been changed by the experience.

Truly a holy moment.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bonnie…

I'm so glad (and relieved!) you took my reply as clarification rather than correction. It was late when I answered your comment, and afterwards, I got to worrying I'd simply sounded like a know-it-all. If I did, I hope you'll forgive me because it certainly wasn't my intention.

As I said, I'd operated for years myself under the same assumption re. bergamot from the flowering plant being the scent/flavor in Earl Grey tea. Who knew? It sure seemed logical to me, and I suspect to many people. I had read—and still do—this bit of misinformation regularly in columns and articles about bergamot published in everything from newspapers to garden journals to magazines.

So we're not the only ones to have taken a wrong turn on the information highway—which road, in my case, being a well-trodden path long before the Digital Age.