- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

It’s always a good thing when a plant is edible and ornamental. Bergamot, also called bee balm, is mostly grown as a perennial border plant, but it also has been served for centuries as an herb.

This wonderful perennial plant blooms in shades of scarlet, pink, purple and white, and the flowers have a citrus, mintlike flavor. American Indians used the leaves to make tea and introduced it to European settlers. It is not to be confused with the small bergamot orange, whose oil is used to flavor Earl Grey tea, soaps and other products.

When the plant blooms in mid- to late summer, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, including many different bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds.

It’s easy to grow since it thrives in full sun but remains happy in partial shade.

Sometimes bergamot plants will flop over without enough sunlight. If you routinely find this to be a problem, stake the plant before it falls. To support these bushy perennials, I buy cheap green bamboo stakes from the Dollar Store. Use three or four and push them into the ground around the outer edges of the plant when it’s about a foot tall. Run fishing line between the stakes to form a grid that the plant can grow up through. When the plant reaches maturity, it will cover the stakes and the fishing line will be invisible.

Bergamot will tolerate average garden soil but loves good well-drained dirt improved with organic matter. Mulching plants with an inch of compost each year will provide everything they need for the season.

Unless you are an experienced grower, the best way to start a patch of bergamot is by purchasing a plant at your favorite nursery or garden center. Once established, it can be divided each spring and shared with gardening friends when they visit.

Bergamot will spread by underground runners like its mint cousin, but it is not as aggressive. Still, it’s a good idea to keep bergamot in check. Otherwise, in a few years, it will overtake a bed. I have a lovely purple variety that I trade for something else I want.

If you’re brave and love to grow from seed, give seed a try. You’ll save a little money and produce many more plants, although they probably won’t bloom until next season.

Bergamot is often bothered by powdery mildew, but this is just an aesthetic problem that’s easily prevented with a homemade organic recipe of one teaspoon baking soda and a few drops of liquid dish soap in one quart of water. For best results, spray the plant before it shows signs of the disease.

Another way to prevent mildew is to give the plant plenty of room.

If overcrowded, mildew will probably set in.

In the kitchen, bergamot is most commonly brewed as Oswego tea, so named because it comes from the Oswego Indians who taught European immigrants how to use bergamot for tea. To make Oswego tea, take 1/4 cup bergamot leaves and pour boiling water over them. Let them steep for 5 minutes. Strain, add honey and you’ll have a delicious tea that is said to settle the stomach.

Bergamot or bee balm is a great addition to the garden. And the chance to see a hummingbird floating from blossom to blossom is just one more reason to embrace this hardy plant.

Bergamot flower salad

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