Thursday, July 26, 2012

When is a Beebalm a Bergamot?

Species name: Monarda media

Common name: purple bergamot

Location: Ontario

This species of plant is a common garden plant (especially in areas of gardens that are planted to attract pollinators and hummingbirds) but now relatively uncommon in the wild. The USDA lists the plant as "apparently secure" since it doesn't have much data on the population status of the plant, but whenever someone goes out looking for it they find it. In order for it to be listed as "secure" the population numbers have to be reasonably estimated and shown that based on current numbers and current threats, the population is at no risk of depletion due to regeneration rate. The next step up from this is obviously "secure, invasive" which means it not only regenerates itself faster than natural death/predation, but it is also a better competitor than the plants in its surrounding area. Purple bergamot is native to Ontario, and it is often mistaken for one of two of its close relatives: Monarda didyma (beebalm) or Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot). Beebalm is traditionally a much more vivid red when it flowers than purple bergamot (which, to me at least, isn't truly purple--more like a "slightly more purple than red" pink), and wild bergamot has pale purple flowers. That being said, the flower colour of any one of these species can vary based on environmental conditions before flowering, so an overlapping range of colour possibilities between these three species can be expected, only furthering the confusion for which species is which.

All three of these species are very important in Native American medicine, especially for the Blackfoot, Ojibwa, Winnebago and Menominee people. They recognized the strong antiseptic properties of this plant very early on in human history, and have been using it as an antibacterial salve for many, many generations. Gingivitis and toothache caused by cavities were also treated using this plant; instead of grinding the leaves and using them as a paste, the herbal medicine was consumed as a tea. In fact, when you buy mouthwash you're using this same ancient herbal remedy: the modern source of the antibacterial chemical Thymol is still beebalm. These three plants have also been used to treat flatulence, headache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. What can't this plant do?! It was also used by Native North Americans and Europeans to season wild game; the flavour of the plant is almost a mixture between mint and oregano.

A word of caution: the plant has reported stimulant properties, so making sure small children don't consume this plant is probably a good idea. I haven't specifically heard of any ill-effects of animals eating the plant, but I think the scent is deterrent enough for most animals. These are one of the few plants in our garden that is not consumed when still young by the combination of rabbits, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and groundhogs.