The uplifting, citrusy-floral fruit of this small tree has a striking, noble aroma that will fill your mind with Italian sunshine.
Plant name (Latin): Citrus aurantium bergamia
Plant family: Rutaceae (citrus)
Native region: Southern Italy
Growing habit: Small tree with regular, shiny leaves and small green fruit
Parts used: Fruit (as food and juice) and peel (essential oil)
Essential oil extraction method: Cold-pressed from the rind of the bergamot fruit
Sunny, delightful and uplifting, the aroma of bergamot orange has been popular for hundreds of years and used in everything from eau de cologne to Earl Grey tea. Pressed from the rind of a small Mediterranean citrus fruit, bergamot essential oil brings a touch of Italian sunshine into your day.
Why we use bergamot
Sweet, citrusy bergamot is used in aromatherapy to help relieve cold and flu symptoms, and for acne and oily skin. The slightly floral aroma is a delight for balancing and calming the mind.
How and where bergamot grows
Bergamot is native to the Reggio di Calabria area of Italy. Almost all commercial cultivation of the citrus fruit takes place in a small area off the Ionian Sea. Some bergamot is also grown in France, Turkey, and Côte d’Ivoire. The first bergamot trees emerged in the late 1600s, as a hybrid of the bitter orange and the lemon (or possibly, the acid lime).
Bergamot trees are a medium-sized citrus variety, with an upright to spreading growing habit. Bergamot flowers are relatively large and pure white in colour. The tree starts to flower in winter, with the pear-shaped fruits starting growing over the summer. The fruit starts green and turns yellow/orange as it ripens. Bergamots are harvested from November to January, when they are fully ripe.
The flesh of the bergamot is greenish-yellow and the rind is fairly thin. Bergamot fruits are very acidic, with a faint bitter aftertaste, and are rarely, if ever, eaten. In the case of the bergamot, the beauty really is skin deep.
While bergamots were originally grown from cuttings, in the 1860s a disease attacked their roots, and today they are produced by grafting onto a bitter orange. It takes three years for the tree to produce fruit, and 12 years to reach full maturity. After about 80 years, fruit production slows down and the trees are usually replaced.
Bergamot in all its forms
Bergamot essential oil
Bergamot essential oil is cold-pressed from the rind (or peel) of the bergamot fruit. It takes the rind of 100 bergamot oranges to yield approximately 85g (3 ounces) of essential oil. Refreshing and uplifting, bergamot essential oil is widely used in the perfume industry, and is a key ingredient in Eau de Cologne, the world’s first commercially successful fragrance.
While bergamot essential oil smells so good it’s tempting to use it lavishly, there is one caveat. Bergamot essential oil is phototoxic, which means you should avoid sun exposure (including tanning beds) for at least 3-4 days after applying on the skin.
Bergamot as a flavouring
If you’ve ever enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey tea, you’ve smelled and tasted the essence of bergamot. The flavouring essence is extracted from the bergamot orange peel, and used to add a familiar, citrusy aroma to black tea. In recent years, Earl Grey teas have also been made by adding the flavour of bergamot to green, white and rooibos teas. Lady Grey has cornflowers added to the mix, while a London Fog is Earl Grey tea with milk and vanilla.
Earl Grey is a popular flavouring in baked goods, chocolate, ice cream, and even some savoury sauces. Bergamot on its own is used to make marmalade and a variety of candies.
Other plants called bergamot
Confusingly, bee balm, a herb in the mint family, is also sometimes known as bergamot because it smells very much like bergamot oranges and can also be brewed into tea. Bee balm and related varieties such as lemon bee balm are perennials native to North America. Bee balm, true to its name, will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and it is often planted as an ornamental plant in gardens.
The use of bergamot in Ayurveda
In Ayurvedic tradition, bergamot essential oil is considered to have heating and drying energies. It is thought to pacify vata and kapha imbalances and augment pitta dosha. The uplifting scent of bergamot oil is thought to stimulate the mind, open the heart chakra, and help to allow you to appreciate the richness and joy of life. When applied to the skin, bergamot essential oil is believed to bring a fresh radiance to the complexion.
In Ayurveda, too much kapha dosha is thought to result in heavy, slow, cool and sluggish energies. The heating, drying properties of bergamot essential oil are believed to help cleanse and freshen while give a sense balance.
The symbolism of bergamot
The English word “bergamot” is derived from the Italian “bergamotto”. In turn, the Italian term is of Turkish origin: “bey armudu” or “bey armut” for “prince’s pear” or “prince of pears”. Bergamo is an Italian city where bergamot was cultivated.
Bergamot is popular in Greece, and Nobel-Prize winning Greek poet Odysseas Elytis has written about the fruit, saying: “I really eat bergamot for day to dawn and I write poems for to fall in love rightly.”
The history of bergamot
Bergamot was recognized as a separate variety of citrus in the 17th century. The Mediterranean fruit is a hybrid of bitter orange and another citrus, possibly an acid lime. Very soon after the variety was discovered, bergamot essential oil transformed the way that (rich and royal) Europeans fragranced themselves.
By the late 1600s or early 1700s, Italian perfumers in Cologne, Germany were blending bergamot essential oil with other floral and woody notes into a perfume that came to be known as Eau De Cologne, in honour of the city. Eau De Cologne was the first world’s first commercial perfume success, and several companies dating to the early 1700s still operate in Cologne today. Versions of the perfume were purchased by just about every royal court in Europe. The perfume became so popular that “eau de cologne” is now a generic term for perfume. To this day, bergamot remains a popular note in some of the world’s top fragrances.
Not only did bergamot transform the way that Europe was fragranced, it also transformed how they took their tea. Earl Grey tea, black tea flavoured with bergamot, became popular in England in the 1820s or 1830s. Earl Grey tea was named after Charles Grey (1764-1845), a British politician whose romance with the Duchess of Devonshire is chronicled in the movie “The Duchess”. Charles inherited the title Earl from his father in 1807, and joined the House of Lords (he was previously in Parliament), and eventually became the British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.
While his career achievements were significant, he wasn’t particularly well-liked, and no one is entirely sure why Earl Grey tea became associated with him. A tea shipment to his house may have been scented with bergamot when the two happened to sit side-by-side, or a servant may have flavoured his tea because of bad water, or perhaps he never actually tasted Earl Grey tea at all. Regardless of why, his namesake tea is now popular around the world.
Whether in your cup, in your fragrance, or as a key essential oil in your natural remedy collection, when you inhale the fresh, uplifting scent of bergamot, you are in noble company.
The science of bergamot
Bergamot essential oil contains a wide variety of compounds, including limonene, linalyl acetate, linalool, y-terpinene, β-pinene, geranial, and β-bisabolene.