Monardas – or Bergamot – are old-fashioned plants that are thankfully having a bit of a revival. The flowers are gorgeously shaggy like a giant exotically-coloured spider, and in this variety are rich red above dark purple bracts. They look fabulous planted in the middle or back of a border in moisture-retentive soil (in shade or sun) where they flower all summer, attracting butterflies and bees (hence its other common name – Bee Balm, and possibly its rejuvenated popularity).
Monarda didyma was first brought into this country as seed collected from Oswego on Lake Ontario in the mid-eighteenth century where its leaves were used to make tea and flavour wines. It was called Bergamot as the aromatic foliage was thought to resemble the extraordinary fragrance of the Bergamot orange from Italy, the oil of which has been used in perfumery since the seventeenth century (and it is the Bergamot orange which is used for the flavouring of Earl Grey tea and not this Bee Balm). Although all Monardas are scented, this variety ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ seems to have the most intensely fragrant leaves of the many cultivars.
But more fascinating still is the connection with the plant’s family name. Dr. Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588) was a distinguished Spanish physician and trader living in Seville, a port city where ships sailed to and from the newly-found continents of the Americas. The Spanish ‘discovery’ and conquest of the Americas had created a supply of new materials and plants of great value and interest to the people of Europe who were keen to exploit all possible trading and collecting opportunities.
Although Monardes never travelled there himself his son settled in Peru and sent back plants with medicinal qualities which the physician then grew in his garden and studied, along with specimens received by other adventurers. In 1569 Monardes wrote and published the first European book to describe these strange and new plants, translated into English in 1577 under the delightful title ‘Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde’. He wrote of the ‘rare and singuler vertues of diverse and sundrie Hearbes, Trees, Oyles, Plants and Stones, with their applications..[to]…present remedie for all diseases, as maie seme altogether incredible…’ The book contained a description of many plants discovered in South America and now arriving into Europe, such as tobacco (sixteen pages of its ‘greate vertues’), the passion- and sun- flowers, sweet potatoes and peppers. There was also a description of plants considered effective against the ‘great pox’, syphilis, ‘except the sicke man doe returne to tumble in the same bosome, where he took the firste’.
Monardes is now remembered for this very successful book, and for the fragrant plant named in his honour.