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.