Wild bergamot / Monarda fistulosa

How does a member of the mint family come to be called the wild version of a citrus tree?

Consider this quote from colonial French traveler Chastellux regarding colonial nomenclature (Cronon, 1983):

“Anything that has no English name has here been given only a simple designation: the jay is the blue bird, the cardinal the red bird; every water bird is simply a duck, from the teal to the wood duck, and to the large black duck which we do not have in Europe”.

The fragrance of this mint plant reminded the colonists of the smell of true bergamot, a citrus fruit, and therefore the plant was referred to as wild bergamot. Oswego tea and beebalm, other common names for Monarda fistulosa, are equally pragmatic. “Oswego tea” was coined when the colonists replicated the western New York Oswego tribe’s use of the dried leaves of the plant for tea. “Beebalm” hints of a resin derived from the plant which may help heal or soothe bee stings (Anderson, 2003) .

Traditional medicinal use:

Wild bergamot / M. fistulosa has been widely used by many Native American tribes. Numerous tribes used it to treat colds and headaches or to alleviate stomach ailments. Making and drinking tea from the leaves or leaves and flowers was a widespread approach to capturing the benefits of the plants and so was the idea of adding the plant to warm baths or sweat baths. One headache treatment involved inserting wads of chewed leaves into a nostril and one treatment for catarrh and bronchial affections involved gathered and drying the whole plant then boiling it in a vessel to inhale the volatile oil (Anderson, 2003). Making and drinking tea was another approach. The plant was also used for seasoning for meats and stews and may have been used as a meat preservative.

“Liberty Tea”: Tea made from plants of genus Monarda was one substitute for true “China” tea used by the Daughters of Liberty in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.

Plant Characteristics:

The tubular shape of the petals are distinctive, with lobes much shorter than the tube and with petals arranged in a whorl. Flowers are solitary and terminal on the flowering branches and are lavender to soft pink in color. Wild bergamot grows in clumps about 2-4 feet tall and exhibits the alternate leaves with toothed margins on square stems that is characteristic of the mint plant family.

Current use:

Bee balm tea can be made from both fresh and dried leaves. The citrusy flowers fresh flowers can be used as a garnish or a spice. Cut flowers are both attractive and fragrant. Bee Balm was cited as a garden-worthy plant by major American garden writers of the nineteeth century — Buist, Downing, Breck, and Henderson.

Stuff Almost Nobody Knows:

(for the perpetually curious)

“Essential oil” is a natural product extracted from a single plant species often by water or steam distillation. Hydrodistillation involves boiling plant matter in water, a process which produces water vapor and releases volatile chemicals in the plant, and then capturing the water vapor and released volatile chemicals in liquid form using a condenser. The captured liquid concentrate of chemical compounds is called the plant’s “essential oil” and because essential oil floats on water, separating the essential oil from the recaptured water in the condenser is straightforward. The relative ratio of various compounds within a plant’s essential oil makes each plant’s essential oil unique and a single essential oil may contain over a hundred individual compounds. Because it takes a lot of plant material to make a little essential oil, essential oil is relatively expensive and often sold by the ounce.

While it is not useful or even possible to extract essential oil from every plant, the mint family stands out as capable of producing some of the most popular and valuable essential oils. Although wild bergamot essential oil isn’t widely available, wild bergamot is a plant in the mint family – and more widely known plants in the mint family include thyme, oregano, basil, lavender, rosemary and sage. Something about this family of plants has caused human cultures the world over to recognize and appreciate their culinary and medicinal value.

Essential oils can include high-value chemicals. Wild bergamot essential oil includes geraniol, linalool, thymol, and carvacrol in addition to other compounds though the relative fractions of each may vary (Mazza, G., Kiehn, F. and Marshall, H, 1993). These compounds are associated with set of potential benefits wide enough to defy belief. Research is ongoing as to the degree to which these bioactive molecules fight bacterial and fungal infections, act as anti-inflammatory agents, act as a minimum-risk pesticides or sanitizers or even have anticancer effects. Thymol and carvacrol are both known antimicrobials. Carvacrol is demonstrated to have effective antibacterial activity against Salmonella Typhimurium at concentration levels of less than .001% and thymol offers a potential alternative to a chlorine-based washing solutions for fresh produce (Lu and Wu, 2010). Multiple companies, including at least Boulder Clean and Thymox, now offer thymol-based sanitizers for general sale. Geraniol shows promise as a low-toxicity natural pest control agent and among other results was found to be more effective at deterring mosquitoes than citronella and to have larvicidal activity against roundworms of genus Contracaecum and marine nematodes Anisakis simplex (Chen, W. and Viljoen, A., 2010). Linalool is the molecule mostly responsible for the smell of lavender, is widely used in industry as a fragrance and may help manage anxiety. The pure versions of these powerful chemicals are not safe for household use. However, most of these compounds appear to break down naturally in the environment in a matter of days and so, from that perspective, do not provide a long-term risk to the environment.

Methods for synthesizing some or all of these compounds are known, utilized and generally cheaper than isolating their naturally derived and chemically identical counterparts. However, the idea of industrial-scale bio-based chemical production should not be lightly dismissed. One reason to reserve judgement is because the value of the co-benefits which could accompany such an approach is likely under-explored. For example, US farmers which have land classified as highly erodible are required to have and execute a soil conservation plan for such acreage to remain eligible for any premium subsidy paid by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation for any policy or insurance plan. The amount of US crop land considered highly erodible is huge. It exceeds 100 million acres, an area about the same size as the entire state of California. While there are many land management practices which can currently be qualified as components of a soil conservation plan, the most effective way to protect soil from erosion is to keep it covered and undisturbed. If we used perennial plants to grow feedstock for valuable bio-based chemicals on land prone to erosion and harvested them such in a way that the soil was never exposed and ongoing population viability was never compromised, perhaps the value of the harvest and the value of the soil erosion prevented combined could compete against the lower cost of synthesizing those same chemicals. Wild bergamot is a pollinator-friendly perennial that requires minimal care and wild bergamot essential oil can be produced at a rate of around 1% of the weight plant material used (Mazza, Kiehn, and Marshall, 1993), comparable to the essential oil yield of other mint family members. This plant appears beneficial to the environments in which is grows and it is clear that we don’t fully understand all of the ways it could benefit people. This alone should be enough to move wild bergamot towards the top of lists of native species worthy of additional study.

Black Squirrel Farms strives for accuracy but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. We’re happy to update our information if needed. Please contact us if you spot an error or have a suggested edit, update or information inclusion. Help is welcome.


Anderson, M., 2003. “Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa L.” USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center, https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_mofi.pdf

Chen, W. and Viljoen, A., 2010. “Geraniol — A review of a commercially important fragrance material”. South African Journal of Botany, Volume 76, Issue 4, p. 643-651, 2010.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0254629910001559 in: South African Journal of Botany, Volume 76, Issue 4, p. 643-651, 2010.

Mazza, G., Kiehn, F. and Marshall, H., 1993. “Monarda: A source of geraniol, linalool, thymol and carvacrol-rich essential oils”. p. 628-631, J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York, https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1993/V2-628.html

Lu, Y. and Wu, C., 2010. “Reduction of Salmonella enterica contamination on grape tomatoes by washing with thyme oil, thymol, and carvacrol as compared with chlorine treatment”. National Library of Medicine, Pubmed.gov, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21219747/

Cronon, W., 1983. “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England”. Hill and Wang, New York.