By Maryann Readal
What do Earl Gray tea, the confection Turkish Delight, the liqueur Bergamia, eau de cologne, and some air fresheners have in common? The answer is: the essential oil from the bergamot orange, Citrus ×bergamia, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March.
When I first looked into March’s Herb of the Month, bergamot orange, I was sure there would not be much exciting information about this herbal tree. What can you expect from a tree that produces oddly shaped, yellow oranges? It turned out that I was very wrong.
Bergamot orange, C. ×bergamia, has a lot to satisfy the curious mind. The tree is a hybrid of lemon and sour orange, so I don’t think you are going to eat the fruit right from the tree. The origins of the tree are debated, but many believe it originated in Turkey. In fact, the origin of its name comes from the Turkish word “beg-a-mudi” which means “pears of the Prince” or “pears of the Lord.”
Today, the fruit is grown in many places, but the fruit which is produced in the coastal Calabria region of Italy is the most desirable. In fact, the Calabria region (the toe of the boot in Italy) is an economically protected area because of the fruit’s importance to not only the region’s economy, but also to future research into the fruit’s medicinal benefits. Eighty to ninety percent of the world’s production of bergamot essential oil (BEO) comes from this 60-mile strip of the Italian coastline.
BEO is very important to the perfume industry. Its history in perfumery dates back to the late 1600s – early 1700s when the essence from the skin was first used to produce cologne water (eau de cologne) or toilet water. Still today, the essential oil is used in perfumes. According to Gina Maruca, et al., “bergamot oil, [sic] is one of the most important perfume materials; its pleasant refreshing scent, [sic] blends into almost, [sic] any perfume composition so that, today, there is not a perfume which does not contains BEO (Bergamot Essential Oil)” (Journal of Science and Engineering, 2017).
For use in cosmetics, the bergapten compound of bergamot essential oil is removed because it creates a photosensitivity to sunlight whenever used on the skin. People with photosensitivity should be careful using BEO that has not had this compound removed.
The juice from the bergamot orange was used in traditional Italian folk medicine to treat intestinal parasites and malaria. The oil was used as an antiseptic and to treat fevers. In Ayurvedic medicine, the oil has been used to treat a variety of skin problems, depression, flatulence, and loss of appetite. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, BEO was used to stimulate and re-balance the flow of energy in the body. Bergamot oil is still used in aromatherapy applications because, when inhaled, its ingredients soothe and calm the nervous system, reducing anxiety and stress and helping with sleep disorders.
Still under investigation today are the therapeutic possibilities of bergamot, and there is great interest in its antioxidant, cancer- and cholesterol-fighting components. Other uses of the fruit include using the pulp and peel in animal feed and to improve soil. Because of its antimicrobial properties, researchers have recommended the use of bergamot essential oil on fresh fruit in order to prolong shelf life.
So for an herb that did not seem interesting at first, there is certainly a lot more to it than meets the eye. Or should I say the nose.
For more information about bergamot, recipes, and a colorful screensaver, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.