Wild Bergamot

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) has showy mauve to purple-pink tubular flowers clustered on heads at the top of 50-120 cm tall stems. Blooming in July to August, the flower is a favourite of butterflies and hummingbirds.

The grey-green lanced-shaped leaves are fragrant with the scent of peppermint and oregano combined. It’s reminiscent of the scent of Early Grey tea, which is actually scented with a different product—oil of bergamot from the citrus tree, bergamot orange.

Wild bergamot is found on dry banks as well as scrubby patches and moist waste places, in the open areas near poplar patches.

Traditional uses

Rich in thymol, the plant has many uses in traditional indigenous culture—as a medicine, disinfectant, insect repellent (for instance on dried meat and drying berry cakes), perfume, and in smudges. One source, Plants of the Rocky Mountains, mentions that the Cheyenne (Suhtai, Tsitsistas) “perfumed favourite horses with the chewed leaves”, which is probably why it is also called horsemint.

WASKAHEGAN FIELD NOTES

In 2019, we had a lot of rain, which possibly raised the water table. That was also the year we noticed large patches of wild bergamot where we had never noticed it before, on the dry slopes of the Stoney Creek trail, and in the open areas of the North Coal Lake trail.

On a hot summer day on the Stoney Creek trail, you’ll smell the warm and spicy mint and oregano in the air before you even see the flowers.

Sources

  • Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon, Jim Pojar. Plants of the Rocky Mountains.
  • R.G.H. Cormack. Wild Flowers of Alberta.
  • F.R. Vance, J.R. Jowsey, J.S. McLean. Wildflowers Across the Prairies.

High Bush Cranberry

High Bush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum)  is native throughout Alberta and much of North America. It is actually not a cranberry but a member of the Honeysuckle family, though its fruit, or “drupes” as they are known taxonomically, strongly resemble cranberries in both appearance and taste (umaine.edu).

This deciduous shrub grows up to 4 m. tall with a smooth grey bark. The leaves are opposite, with three shallow lobes and sharply toothed edges. The flowers are showy flat-topped clusters. The larger white flowers along the edges are infertile; the inner smaller yellowish ones are fertile.

According to the University of Maine website, “The flowers are hermaphrodite (having both male and female organs) and are therefore self-fertile, meaning that an individual plant’s flowers can pollinate one another, so there is no need for a second type (or even a second individual plant) to provide pollen and produce fruit. The flowers are pollinated by both wind and insects.”

The berry-like fruit with a stone inside is reddish orange, matching the shrub’s crimson fall foliage.

There can be some confusion between this and the smaller shrub Virbunum edule, sometimes called Low Bush Cranberry (to 2.5 m. tall). The main difference is in the size of the flower clusters – those of V.edule are much smaller with all flowers the same size (and all fertile?). Thus, the fruit clusters in the fall are also smaller, bearing 5-7 berries rather than upwards of 10.

Source: Johnson , Kershaw, MacKinnon, Pojar. Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland, Lone Pine Publishing, 1995.

WASKAHEGAN FIELD NOTES

High Bush Cranberry is often found in the same location as Chokecherries along the Saunders, Kopp and Coal Lake trails. The large discs of flowers in May to early June are surprising. In September – especially after the first frost – you will notice a musty-sour odour like wet socks coming from stands of High Bush Cranberry. This is when the fruit is ripe. It is edible, but quite tart, and shouldn’t be eaten raw in large quantities. Cooked, it has many uses, and combining these with Chokecherries makes a good jelly/jam (see Chokecherry).

Chokecherry

Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana) Shrub grows between 1 and 6 m tall. The leaves are elliptic and pointed at tips, darker above than below, hairless but edges have fine sharp teeth. It blooms in many-flowered, bottlebrush-like clusters at end of branches from May to June.

Fruits are shiny purple to black cherries around 8mm across, ripe in late August. They are edible and can be sweet, but “astringent.” The stones contain hydrocyanic acid and should not be swallowed.

Source: Johnson, Kershaw, MacKinnon, Pojar. Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland. Lone Pine Publishing, 1995.

WASKAHEGAN FIELD NOTES

The showy blooms in May accompany us on many Waskahegan trails, in clearings and open forest areas, also on hillsides and dry and exposed locations. Often found alongside High Bush Cranberries and Saskatoons.

Although we are discouraged from picking along the Waskahegan Trail, if you like making jam from wild fruit, Ilona recommends a mixture of Choke Cherry and High Bush Cranberry. After boiling with only a small amount of sugar, you need to pass the fruit through a colander to remove the seeds.