BERGAMOT (Citrus aurantium bergamia – Rutaceae)
Bergamot is the oil produced from the rind of a bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium bergamia) said to have been exported by Christopher Columbus from the Canary Islands to the New World. It is now cultivated exclusively for its oil in and around Calabria in southern Italy and in Sicily; smaller producing areas are in Africa, especially along the Ivory Coast. The trees are much smaller than other members of the Citrus family, growing up to only 4.5 m (15 ft), and are thought to be an orange cross. The small, yellowish fruits are pear-shaped, and are harvested from December to February. There once were pears known as bergamot pears, and this is possibly where the name originated – from the Turkish beg-armudz, ‘bey’s pear’. The bergamot orange should not be confused with red bergamot (bee balm, Oswego tea, Monarda didyma) which is an herbaceous perennial. The herb’s name, however, is probably derived from the orange, as the scent of the herb flowers is very similar to that of the orange and its oil.
Essence of bergamot has been used since the sixteenth century in France, and is mentioned in many old manuscripts and herbals.
(See also neroli, orange and petitgrain.)
BERGAMOT ESSENTIAL OIL
Description: Bergamot oil is extracted, like that of orange, by pressing the peel, or grating the rind without touching the white albedo, or pith. The essence runs from the torn cells into a sponge which is then squeezed out over a container. In his book Tropical Planting and Gardening (1935), H F Macmillan says that ‘about 1,000 peels are required to produce 30 oz of the oil which is usually valued at 35 – 50s per lb, according to purity’
The essence is a lovely emerald-green colour, with a subtle, spicy lemon scent.
The principal constituents: A good essence contains up to 50 per cent of linalyl acetate; other constituents are bergamotine, bergaptene, d-limonene and linalool.
Dangers: Because of the bergaptene and bergamotine, the essential oil needs to be used with care when applied externally. These two furocoumarines increase the melanin-producing properties of the skin, and thus bergamot is often used in proprietary suntan preparations. But the furocoumarines are very often responsible for an over-pigmentation of the skin when exposed to the sun (or even just light in some circumstances), and can provoke abnormalities which can degenerate. Bergamot therefore is a very dangerous oil to use in any suntan preparation, particularly in these days of increased skin melonomas and cancers. I have always been very careful about using it on all skins, especially very fair skins, or those with large moles.
Bergamot is mainly used in aromatherapy because of its antiseptic prop¬erties, and research by many therapists has proved it to be as effective as lavender. I don’t recommend it as an external treatment for the skin (because of the problems outlined above), but its antiseptic properties ¬and its wonderful smell – can be used as a vapour in the home. Put hot water in a bowl with a few drops of the essential oil, or put some oil on a tissue near the radiator in a warm room. Replace every few hours.
(See also oedema.)
The fruit is not used for eating but the peel is dried and used in cooking and in the drinks industry (see neroli); and it is also candied and used in patisserie. The essential oil is more famously used to flavour Earl Grey tea.
Bergamot oil is used a great deal in the cosmetic industry in soaps, in perfumes and aftershaves. However, even at this dilution, it can provoke over-pigmentation of the skin.