Bergamot is a subspecies of the Bitter Orange tree (citrus aurantium var. amara) and the two main cultivars are Castagnaro and Femmenillo. It is completely unrelated to the herbaceous perennial red bergamot or ‘bee balm’.
Other members of the Citrus genus include Sweet Orange, Mandarin, Lemon, Lime and Grapefruit. The oil may be named after Bergamo in Italy, where the oil was first distilled, or else due to the fruit’s shape which resembles the bergamot pear.
Bergamot oil was a key remedy in Italian folk medicine and from the 16th century appeared in a number of European herbals as a febrifuge and antiseptic. It became popular as a perfume in Napoleonic times and was a key ingredient of the classical toilet water Eau-de-Cologne. It is still used in perfumery today as a harmoniser and it provides the delicate yet distinct aroma to Earl Grey tea.
While Bergamot is native to tropical Asia, most of the world’s crop is cultivated in southern Italy. It is also grown in Sicily, North Africa, the Ivory Coast and South America.
The Bergamot tree grows to a height of about 5 metres and has dark green ovate leaves with fragrant star-shaped flowers. The tree cannot be propagated by seed so has to be grafted onto bitter orange trees.
The smallish sour fruits are picked while still unripe. The rind is distilled, resulting in a pale green essential oil, strong in top notes, which smells fresh, green, slightly bitter and fruity-citrus.
Bergamot essential oil that has had the furocoumarins removed (see the caution below) is colourless to pale yellow with a sharp note.
The main chemical constituents are esters including linalyl acetate (29-60%), monoterpenes including alpha-pinene, camphene and limonene, monoterpenic alcohols including linalool, nerol, geraniol and alpha-terpineol, aldehydes including citral, coumarins and furocoumarins including bergaptene and bergaptole.
The medicinal properties are anti depressive, antispasmodic, calmative, carminative, digestive stimulant, stomachic, antiseptic.
Bergamot is typically used to soothe anger, frustration and depression, by decreasing the action on the sympathetic nervous system.
Cool and refreshing, it can be used for infections and inflammations such as cystitis, cold sores, acne, chicken pox and shingles.
It promotes digestion as well as bowel function so is of assistance with spastic colon or irritable bowel syndrome, belching and flatulence. It can be used as an antiseptic in cases of bronchitis, tonsillitis and tuberculosis.
In Traditional Oriental Medicine, the oil’s cool and dry energy is used chiefly to regulate Qi, be it in the Liver, Stomach, intestines, Uterus or Lungs. It clears Damp-Heat from the body, restrains infection and benefits the skin.
Bergamot is associated with the Liver and Wood element so is indicated for use when feeling stressed, irritable, restless or suffering with PMT. It imparts a feeling of optimism and spontaneity and helps us to relax and let go of accumulated tensions and unexpressed anger, which if not released or processed can eventually result in depression, anxiety, mood swings and insomnia.
Naturopath Robbi Zweck says: “Bergamot brings a sunny, effervescent quality to the spirit through balancing the hypothalamus gland, the centre-spring of some deeper emotions, particularly qualities of fear and rage. Remember that there are blessings in discomfort if you choose to examine why your spirit is flat, sad or depressed. Bergamot will heal and cheer your soul, encouraging you to explore your deeper innermost feelings.”
Due to the furocoumarins, bergamot is phototoxic. So avoid exposure to direct sunlight or sunbed rays for 12 hours after applying the diluted oil to the skin. It is recommended to use it in dilutions less than 1%. It is now possible to buy bergamot oil which is free of furocoumarins to avoid any phototoxicity.
Bergamot’s sedative yet uplifting effects make it ideal for an evening bath or massage after a stressful day. It can be used in inhalations with eucalyptus radiata and rosemary for respiratory tract infections, or combined with tea in a gel for topical application for cold sores, acne, chicken pox and shingles.