The beauty of bergamot oranges

Oranges and lemons…and somewhere in-between comes the Bergamot – the sour orange. Actually that should be bitter orange and lemon, since the essential oil of this fruit has a bit of both and a little extra something to make it different. From the time Farina included it in his famous Eau de Cologne, perfumers, cosmetologists and scientists have recognised its unique place in the list of essential oils. Bergamot essential oil which is a ‘must-have’ in every aromatherapist’s repertoire has been included in griffin + row’s Cleanse, Nourish and Enrich formulations….and for reasons described here.

Introducing Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia

The bergamot orange is the genetic hybrid of the bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) and the sour lemon (Citrus limon). Where and when the cross- breeding happened is still a mystery. It would be logical to assume that since both parents are natives of South-east Asia the bergamot orange must be endemic to those places. Yet, looking at the etymology of the name, its origin appears to be Anatolia in Turkey. The name of the same fruit grown there is called beg amurdi which translates to “Prince of pears” 1. This, it appears sailed across the Aegean Sea to become the ‘Pergamonto’ in Greece where it found a home. And perhaps this also led to its cultivation in the rather insulated tip of southern Italy –Calabria – which was a part of the Magna Graecia in the Ionian Sea 2.

Another legend is that Christopher Columbus brought the fruit to the coast of Western Africa and eventually to Spain. This might explain why the fruit is cultivated in Cote d’Ivoire and Spain 3.

What is certain, however, is that the history of bergamot oil started in Italy. The first machine for its extraction was built in Calabria by Nicola Barillà 3 and it was first marketed in the town of Bergamo in the Lombardy region.

Whether this has given it the name of ‘Bergamot’ to the orange is again open to debate. Botanically, the fruit was christened Citrus bergamia by Antoine Joseph Risso and Alexandre Poiteau in their 1818 book “ Histoire Naturelle des Orangers” 4. The fruit has now been classified as a separate sub-species of the sour orange – Citrus aurantium ssp. Bergamia.

The bergamot orange is cultivated in Cote d’Ivoire, Argentina, Morocco, Turkey, Brazil and Italy. Calabria in Italy remains the largest producer of the most prized variety of bergamot orange and the largest manufacturer and exporter of the essential oil. Perhaps its unique geography between two seas and sheltered cliffs gives the fruit the right microenvironment to grow. Or perhaps when Calabrian orchards were destroyed by root rot in 1862, grafting bergamot fruits or buds into local bitter oranges gave rise to a unique variety of fruit that yield superior quality oil 5.

Traditional uses of Citrus aurantium ssp bergamia

Like most of the species in the genus Citrus, the bergamot orange has been used in food flavouring and medicine due to its high content of monoterpenes and polyphenols. Surprisingly, most of the medicinal uses are restricted to the Mediterranean suggesting once more, that the species could have evolved there.

Medicinal uses:

The first mention of the use of bergamot (fruit or oil) comes from Italian folk medicine. People in Calabria used the fruit juice to treat malaria 6. The oil was used as an insect repellent, antiseptic for wounds and to treat digestive problems 7. Traditional medicine in Lombardy used the oil of the bergamot orange to cure anxiety and depression 8.

Like all citrus fruit oils, bergamot oil was used as a disinfectant in southern Europe and Turkey.

Bergamot oil gained royal recognition when a Sicilian nobleman presented it to the French King Louis XIV (1638-1715). In 1693, it was one of the ingredients in the perfume called Aqua mirabilis made by the Italian barber Giovanni Paolo de Feminis in Cologne 4. A decade and a half later, another Italian- Giovanni Maria Farina- formulated perfumed alcoholic water with a top note of bergamot and other citrus oils. In 1709, Farina described the fragrance as something that reminded him of “an Italian spring morning, of mountain narcissus and orange blossoms after the rain” and called it Kolnisch Wasser (water of Cologne). Later, manufacture of large quantities of the perfumed water was done at the address 4711, Glockengasse, Cologne. The perfume became hugely popular with both men and women and was marketed as Eau de Cologne, with 4711 being the most coveted blend 9.

Even as the perfume of Eau de Cologne wafted over Europe, bergamot fruit peel became a flavouring agent. The most famous use of bergamot flavour was the addition of the fruit peel to tea in the Earl Grey blend. Apparently, the secret blend was disclosed to the Earl when he saved a Chinese man from drowning 3. Introduced in 1820 in England, Earl Grey was a hit with tea-drinkers. At the same time bergamot oil and zest was added to enhance the flavour of sweet preparations such as Turkish delight and marmalade.

The 1800s also saw the increasing popularity of moist powdered tobacco (popularly called Snus) in Sweden. This smokeless form of tobacco placed under the upper lip was sweetened and bergamot was added to enhance the flavour.

Although Bergamot oil has not been mentioned in traditional Ayurvedic texts or traditional Chinese medicine, it has been incorporated into both the systems of medicine. It is used to treat skin ailments such as acne, rashes, sores and eczema. Bladder infections, gingivitis and sore throats are also reduced by administration of the oil. It helps in dealing with neurological disorders such as depression and compulsive behaviour and even obesity, flatulence and loss of appetite 10.

Today, bergamot oil is slowly revealing its secrets to systematic analysis. And while it is included in aromatherapy and massage oils, skin care formulations and insect repellents, it is only in the last decade that the constituents of the oil have been defined.

Bioactivity and associated components of the plant

The Bergamot tree, like others of the same family, has the signature citrus fragrance in its leaves and fruit. Bergamot leaf oil is extracted and used to enhance the aroma of certain herbal mixtures.

Until recently, the pulp of the fruit used to be discarded because of its bitter taste. In the last decade, however, the juice has been found to have hypoglycaemic and hypolipemic activity 11. This has been attributed to the presence of flavonoids such as neohesperidin, neoeriocitrin and the ubiquitous flavonoid found in citrus fruits- naringin 12.

The tree is largely cultivated for the essential oil extracted from the pericarp (rind) of the fruit. The essential oil has a sweet, citrus fragrance with spicy undertones. While it has more than 350 compounds 13 some of the main constituents are:

  • Monoterpenes- limonene, γ-terpinene, β-pinene, myrcene
  • Monoterpene alcohols- linalool, nerol, geraniol
  • Monoterpene esters – linalyl acetate, neryl acetate, geranyl acetate

The monoterpenes and their derivatives are volatile and constitute more than 95% of the oil. The remaining 5% is non-volatile and stays as a residue. Bergapten (5-methoxypsoralen [5-MOP]) is the major constituent of the non-volatile fraction.

Bergapten confers the property of phototoxicity on bergamot essential oil. Presence of bergapten causes hyperpigmentation, redness and itching when skin with the essential oil is exposed to sunlight for a long time. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) recommends the addition of a maximum of 0.4% bergamot essential oil to formulations to prevent any adverse effects 14.

Limonene and Bergapten: a spotlight on the main bioactive components

  • Limonene is a cyclic terpene.  

Limonene is responsible for the characteristic smell of all citrus fruits. It is used in the perfumery industry for its fresh and woody fragrance and as a food additive to mask the bitter taste of alkaloids.

  • Bergapten is a furanocoumarin.  

Bergapten constitutes ~0.2 % of the non-volatile fraction of bergamot essential oil. Although it was earlier used in tanning lotions to enhance pigmentation, it is now being used in smaller quantities due to its phototoxicity.

General health benefits and uses of bergamot oil

Bergamot oil is extracted from the rind of the ripe fruit. Sliced peel is cold-pressed to obtain the oil. Alternatively, vacuum distillation of the peels is carried out to obtain bergapten-free essential oil. The composition of oil obtained from vacuum distillation is identical to that of the cold-pressed oil 15.

Bergamot oil is greenish-gold to brownish-gold in colour. It is non-viscous and light with several aromatic volatile components. Its pleasant citrus but spicy fragrance has been used as a top note in the perfumery industry. As long as it is used in small quantities (<0.4%) or if bergapten-free oil is used in formulations, there are no adverse reactions with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Use as medication: When mixed in carrier oils or formulations, bergamot essential oil is more than just a pleasant fragrance. Below are listed some of its uses-

  • Skin care: The cicatrizant property of bergamot oil makes it a favourite ingredient in skin care formulations. It not only balances oil secretion but also hastens the healing of wounds, sores and acne. It evens out skin tone by reducing acne scars and other marks. When added to a cleanser, it gently helps in keeping the pores clean, thereby reducing blocked pores and acne 5.
  • Antibacterial activity: Bergamot oil has been shown to have effective antibacterial activity against Stapylococcus aureus, a common skin bacterium that causes pimples. It is also effective against a wide spectrum of other pathogenic bacteria 1617.
  • Pain relief: Applied topically, bergamot oil in suitable carrier oils can be used to relieve headaches, muscle cramps and arthritic pain 5.
  • Insecticidal activity: The oil has been used effectively against mosquitoes that are vectors for disease carrying viruses.
  • Chronic ailments: A patented form of Bergamot oil called BergaMet has been used for the reduction of cholesterol, blood sugar and generally in the treatment of the metabolic syndrome 18.

Use in the culinary industry: Bergamot oil is used as a flavouring agent in sweets and puddings.

Use in aromatherapy: The presence of limonene and α-pinene give an uplifting, stimulating and refreshing fragrance to bergamot oil. Diffusion of the oil is known to clear anxiety and negative emotions. It is also used in massage oils and body lotions.

Botany and grow it yourself

 

The Bergamot orange is an evergreen tree that belongs to the family Rutaceae. The tree grows to a height of 12-16 feet. The leaves are dark green, glossy and large.

In the Mediterranean, the tree blooms in the months of April to May with small, white, five-petalled flowers dotting the dark green foliage. These develop into pear-shaped fruits that are initially green and turn yellow and rounder upon ripening. Fruit are generally harvested from November till January to February 4.

Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia is grown from seeds or cuttings. The tree grows best in dry mild winters and moderately wet summers. In the winter, the fruit must be protected from frost. Calcareous, alluvial soil such as that found in Calabria seems to nurture the trees with the best yields of essential oil. Fruit appear only after three years of grafting and take up to 12 years to mature fully. A mature tree can bear fruit to yield up to 1kg of essential oil. The tree has a life-span of 70-80 years after which the ability to bear fruit declines 5.

Glossary

Terpene: A class of volatile aromatic compound characterised by the presence of two isoprene units (4-carbon units with alternating double bonds). Pinene (from pine), myrcene (from hops), limonene (from citrus fruits) and linalool (from lavender) are monoterpenes.

Furanocoumarin: Furanocoumarins are a class of fused ring compounds. A furan (5-membered oxygen-containing ring) is fused with coumarin (a benzopyranone). The three ring molecule has a pleasant fragrance but is also responsible for phototoxicity.

Cicatrizant: A cicatrizant is a medication that promotes the formation of a cicatrix – the healing tissue over a wound or break in the skin.


References

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