Bergamot, a spectacular herb, is often mistaken for the citrus of the same name, whose essential oil gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavour and fragrance. The herb does smell a little like the citrus oil, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The essential oil is derived from the aromatic, yellow-orange rind of a small, pear-shaped fruit, ‘citrus aurantium ssp bergamia,’ which is grown commercially in southern Italy and parts of France. The oil’s perfumed therapeutic properties are uplifting and soothing, explaining the refreshing quality of a cup of Earl Grey on a hot summer’s day.
The herb bergamot comes as an annual, ‘Monarda citriodora,’ usually grown from seed, but there are also perennial types, ‘Monarda didyma’.
The annual, as its name implies, has a citrus scent and is known as lemon-scented bergamot, or bee balm, as the plant is a magnet for bees during summer months. It grows about 50cm tall with mauve flowers growing up a stem, and makes a pleasant tea. The leaves and flowers can be cut finely and mixed through a green or fruit salad.
Perennial bergamots grow to a bushy 1.5m, and are much more flamboyant, coming with flashy red, purple, lilac or hot pink flowers.
The forerunner of both plants is wild bergamot, ‘Monarda fistulosa’ which produces eye-catching, bright lavender blooms. These aromatic herbs grow wild in North America, and are also known as Oswego tea, named after the Oswego Indians who use them in a medicinal beverage. The tea, made from about six leaves or a teaspoon of dried, will help digestion, settling a sore stomach and dispelling nausea.
Grow bergamot in full sun in reasonably moist soil but with good drainage. After flowering, cut back to a mat-like clump. You can propagate by splitting the clump in late autumn or spring, and replanting the new sections — discard the middle if it looks tired.
Bergamot attracts many beneficial pollinators and predatory insects, and keeps underground pests away — it is also a good companion for vegetables, particularly tomatoes.
Although generally easy to grow, it can be a little temperamental — some years giving a great show and then sulking the next season. Nonetheless, bergamot in flower is a spectacular addition to any herb or flower garden, with the added bonus of providing a welcome cup of herbal tea.