Wild herbs: two words that conjure up thoughts of exotic flavors, aromas, and special dishes. But what sort of herbs are there you can pick in the wilderness? Hands down, the easiest to identify and harvest, from my experience is bergamot and other species of plants in the family of Lamiacae, also known as the mints.
The name bergamot can be confusing though, since there’s a also a type of orange that shares the name, and is what most people think of when they hear the word. This is where Latin names are really useful. For this post, I’m specifically referencing two different types of Monarda, wild monarda, also known as Monarda fistulosa and wild oregano, and cultivated monarda, also known as Monarda didyma. These two plants (there are many others) are the most common you’ll probably run into, so that’s why i’m referencing them here. To make things even more complicated, these two plants are also both known as bee balm, another common name.
So what’s the difference between the two?
Well, Monarda fistulosa, like you would expect with it’s common name of wild oregano, kind of tastes like oregano, kind of. I would say that the plant more closely resembles a cross between thyme and oregano, and when it’s dried, and the flavor concentrated, tastes and smells like pizza spice. Monarda didyma, or scarlet bee balm, the type of bergamot you’ll probably see in people’s gardens, has leaves with a similar flavor, but the flowers are a lot sweeter smelling, and I love to sprinkle them over salads or add them to raspberry jam.
How do you identify them?
This is really easy. Wild bergamot was the first herb I ever identified in the wild, and I did it naturally, by smell. When I was out hunting mushrooms, I would occasionally grab a leaf or two of a plant I didn’t recognize, rub it between my fingers and give it a smell. Eventually I found some plants that were aromatic, and smelled like herbs.
- All mint family plants will always have a SQUARE STEM, no exceptions to this.
Look for flowers in late summer for an easy I.D.
Smelling the plant is one was to tell what it is, when you get the hang of picking out the shape of the leaves, but it’s even easier to identify the plant (and many others) when it’s started to bloom. During the late summer here in Minnesota, the fields will be filled with beautiful purple flower blossoms, and while, at this stage, you won’t get as much yield as when they’re young, it’s the perfect time for identifying large stands of the plant, so you can come back next year in the Spring and Early Summer, which, in my opinion, is the best time to harvest them. Just like with the wild monarda, scarlet bee balm, or Monarda Didyma is easily spotted by it’s colorful scarlet flowers, which, just like wild monarda are a great pollinator plant and friend to bees.
How do you use the plant in cooking?
There’s a couple different ways to do this. to make things easy, here’s a few helpful bullet points:
- Dried, the leaves will have a concentrated flavor, reminiscent of pizza spice, use wherever you would use dried oregano.
- The dried flowers will have a softer flavor, and while are still usable, are the most potent fresh.
- Fresh Monarda flowers are excellent sprinkled over a salad, or used as a garnish with chicken, fish and pork.
- To fully appreciate the flavors and let them shine, I like to use dried Monarda leaves by themselves.
Like I mentioned, you can use dried monarda anywhere you would use dried oregano, but some recipes and methods are better than others. Here’s a few ideas I’ve tried, and some that are on the list:
- Add dried bergamot to all-purpose tomato or pizza sauce.
- Blanch some diced eggplant in salted water, then bake in the tomato-bergamot sauce with cheese for an excellent side dish.
- Use dried bergamot, lemon zest, crushed garlic cloves and olive oil to marinate chicken, pork or fish
- Fresh bergamot leaves have a strong flavor, but can be used with a little technique, see my recipe for salmoriglio sauce below for my favorite recipe
- Scarlet beebalm leaves either fresh or dried are absolutely wonderful with red fruit, especially raspberries and strawberries.