Herbs: Bergamot; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Bergamot, also known as horsemint, American melissa or bee-balm, is a highly aromatic, perennial herb that is native to eastern North America and is considered a true wild flower. Bergamot, botanical name Monarda didyma has flamboyant looking scarlet flowers, and the colors of its cultivars range from white through pink and purple. This genus is edible and a member of the mint family or Lamiaceae. As such its flowers and leaves have a fragrant mint taste. This herb was highly prized by Native American people for its medicinal properties.
Bergamot can grow to a height of 4 feet and spread out as much as 3 feet across, so it is often used as a garden border plant. In the wild, bergamot grows near rivers, streams and in wet meadows. Although some species such as Monarda fistulosa prefers well drained soil. Another name for bergamot is Oswego or Oswego tea, after the Oswego Indians of upstate New York, who traditionally used the plant for medicine and to make tea. After the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when American colonists boycotted imported tea to protest against taxation levied upon it by the British, bergamot or Oswego tea became the tea of choice and a symbol of revolutionary America. American settlers also used bergamot to perfume hair tonics.
Bergamot gets its genus name Monarda in honor of the Spanish botanist and physician, Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588). Monardes is most remembered for his detailed botanical survey of 1565, which translates as “Medical study of the products imported from our West Indian possessions.” The name bergamot may have originated from the confusion between this plant and a European plant known as citrus bergamia. Bergamia is one of the flavorings in Earl Grey tea.
Species and Hybrids of Monarda: There are 16 species of bergamot, plus an array of beautiful hybrid crosses. Monarda fistulosa or wild bergamot is a perennial herbaceous plant with lavender or pink flowers in summer. It can be found growing wild in woodlands and sometimes along roadsides. The Latin name for this plant fistulosa means “tubular” and refers to the shape of its sepals. Another variety Monarda citriodora is an annual with white or purple lantern shaped flowers. The leaves of this plant have a lemon scent, hence its name citriodora, and make an excellent tea. The many hybrids include, Jacob Cline Monarda (red flowers), Petite delight ( pink/lilac flowers) and Marshalls delight ( pink flowers).
The Culinary Uses of Bergamot: Bergamot flowers have a mild, slightly sweet taste and add a colorful contrast to salads. They are also used to flavor desserts. Bergamot leaves, which are toothed and slightly hairy, have a stronger mint flavor and are used in recipes with poultry and rich meats. Dried or fresh bergamot leaves, or flowers, are used to make an aromatic herb tea.
Bergamot and its Nutritional Value: In herbal medicine a decoction made with bergamot leaves is used as an inhalant to treat bronchial ailments. American Indian were known to have made a broth of boiled roots and leaves as a cure for worms and parasites. The antibacterial and antifungal effects of bergamot are due to a phenolic compound known as thymol. Research has demonstrated that thymol has the ability to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria such as E. coli and staphylococcus by its interaction with human cells and by working against the cell walls of bacteria. Other positive studies have looked at the affect of thymol as a remedy for hookworms and other parasites. Thymol, also found in the herb thyme, is also made synthetically and has many application in modern medicine and dentistry. Although thymol is one of the most prevalent compounds in bergamot, this herb contains over 20 significant compounds in its volatile oils alone, which include;
Bergamot contains phytochemicals in the color pigments of its leaves and flowers. These compounds, which are popularly known as flavonoids, are a rich source of antioxidants. Flavonoids are thought to have a number of health benefits such as to inhibit the growth of cancerous and pre-cancerous conditions. They also help prevent the oxidization of LDL cholesterol and the onset of degenerative conditions such as heart disease. The primary flavonoids in bergamot are;
Other Uses for Bergamot: Bergamot is used to add color to floral arrangements and for its scent in potpourris. In aromatherapy this plant is used to treat depression. Medicinally, bergamot is used to treat the same ailments as wild thyme.
Image (Monarda didyma) by b-nik on Flickr; published with creative commons licence at fotopedia.com. Primary image Monarda fistulosa; photo by jerryoldenettel, published with creative commons licence on Flickr, at fotopedia.com.