Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Courting Wild Bergamot

I've been a fan of the bee balms (genus Monarda) for years.  I've used these native mints in seed mixes and planting plans for over a decade, and damned be the deer and powdery mildew that attack those wonderful plants.  I'd heard of Bergamot, but to me, it seemed like another landscape architect's word for "bee balm."  When you call it the french "Bergamot" or the native American "Oswego," I guess you can charge more money for the plants than just ratty old "bee balm."

In 2008, I took a wetland construction class in the Finger Lakes of New York.  The region wasn't what I expected, in both good and bad ways, but what it lacked in culture and real mountains it made up for in vast forests, rivers full of smallmouth bass, and native flowers I'd never seen.  We were on the site of a restored prehistoric wetland when I discovered a really curious lavender bee balm.  I asked, "What is that?"  Someone replied, "Wild Bergamot."  Here's the photo I took of it.

Funny - I never even uploaded it to Flickr - this is its first public viewing
I set about on a plan to grow Wild Bergamot myself.  It can't be hard - I mean, it's a mint, it's closely related to the other bee balms which grow wonderfully in central/eastern Maryland, should work, right?

The problem is that in the southeast and mid-atlantic states, Wild Bergamot is not native to the coastal plain (or even the eastern portion of the piedmont).   The plant seeds prolifically, can grow by runners, and yet, can't survive (I'm guessing) the summer humidity.

(map removed, thanks, virus)

In 2009, I bought live Bergamot plants from three different sources.  One died of stem rot, one died from stress as a result of powdery mildew, and the other one was destroyed by marauding ants (a problem I occasionally encounter with bee balm, for some reason).   In 2010, I bought a live plant from a high end nursery in Maryland.  It turned out to be.......bee balm.  Their response, "Oh, it has lots of names! (proceeds to list every plant in the Monarda genus)."  In 2011, I tried to grow it from seed.  It failed.

In 2011, I ordered some seed through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which sourced the seed from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.   It survived but did not bloom.  I had very low hopes.  But somehow in 2013, it returned.  And grew.  And grew. And bloomed.  See it near the center of this image?  It requires a tomato cage to support its weight.

And the bees are on it.  I've succeeded.  Every time I see the plant, I think of that amazing restored wetland and meadow in the New York Finger Lakes.  Of a tough and strenuous week, before Amy was even pregnant with Hank.  Before I knew what stress and love really were.  It's a good plant. Everybody said it wouldn't grow.  It's too hot.  Too humid.  The mildew will kill it.  And yes, after watching it grow all spring, I can see all of those stresses on these plants.  But they live.



e.m.b. said...

Triumph! It isn't always pretty or tidily done...usually it's a heck of a lot of blood and sweat and tears. But it lives! Very exciting. I adore the smell and taste of Bergamot. Featured in Earl Grey, I believe? Very cool post.

cofisher said...

Well I got schooled again. Thanks for the interesting post.

biobabbler said...

Way to just FORGE ahead and try it. That's great.

If I read too much about gardening, I get overwhelmed and can't do anything. I like how gardening can engender faith. Nursery plant does very poorly first year. Dies back to almost nothing in the winter, and I think, oh well, guess that didn't work. Then, through the winter, the roots get BUSY & that spring (or maybe the next), pa-POW! That thing is HERE and growing and IN IT.

Nicely done. Lovely bee shot, too! =)

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