You might not know the name, but you know the fragrance, and very likely, the taste. According to one industry source, nearly half of all women’s perfumes and a third of men’s fragrances contain bergamot oil. It’s also the most identifiable flavoring in Earl Grey tea and it’s long been known, in aromatherapy circles, as a calmative for stress.
Known also as citrus bergamia, the bergamot tree is generally regarded as native to Southeast Asia and China and to have arrived in Europe, particularly Italy, when trade
routes to China were opened. The tree can grow up to four meters high, and has star-shaped flowers with smooth, leathery leaves. There are two versions for the origin of its name:
- Version one – it was named for the town of Bergamo, Italy, the European town it was initially associated with.
- Version two – the name is derived from the Turkish word beg-armudi, meaning “prince of pears,” or “prince’s pear.”The Fruit, the Oil
The Fruit, the Oil
The bergamot fruit – which ripens from green to yellow – is roughly a cross between an orange and a grapefruit, but shaped like a pear. It’s generally regarded as inedible and unusable for juice, though there are reports of a small village in Italy that raises bergamot oranges specifically, and mysteriously, for the juice.
The oil itself is cold-pressed from the peel of both ripe and unripe fruit. Because it mixes so well with other ingredients, bergamot oil has been associated with fragrance and perfumery since at least the early 1700s. It was a primary component of the iconic Eau de Cologne, produced in Germany around 1714. As an aromatic element, bergamot is characterized as a “top note,” the most immediately perceived scent and also the most volatile, meaning it evaporates most quickly.
Cautions for Use
Bergaptens (also known as furocoumarins) are an issue with bergamot and other citrus oils. They are the chemicals that can make essential oils phototoxic, causing severe burns when used on sensitive skin and then exposed to the sun. Bergaptens are enough of an issue that several sources for essential oils make a point of carrying bergamot oil that is bergapten-free, reducing the phototoxic risk. Though caution is still advised, bergapten-free bergamot oil is far less likely to cause problems for sensitive skin.
Cautions When Buying
There is also reason to be wary of the quality of oil you’re buying. On the world market, bergamot – like other fixed and essential oils – is susceptible to fraud and market corruption. Products known for their purity tend to be expensive, and there’s always temptation to cut corners in production while still charging a premium price. The easiest corner to cut is purity. All that’s required is diluting the original oils with cheaper, less essential ingredients.
In the case of bergamot oil, bitter orange is used, as is oil from the bergamot mint. It’s also possible the bergamot oil you’re buying has been synthetically reconstructed and colored with chlorophyll. By one estimation, of the three thousand tons of bergamot oil sold worldwide each year, no more than one hundred tons – just over three percent – is truly, purely essential. If you’re using bergamot oil for aromatherapy, it’s always good to know the factors that affect the purity of the oils you’re using.