As many aromatherapists know, identifying some plant species can be confusing. Many plants have interchangeable or similar common English names; one such example is bergamot. Here is a quick look at the difference between bergamot (the fruit) and bergamot (the herb).
Botanical Profile of Bergamot (Fruit)
The citrus fruit bergamot is known by the botanical name of Citrus bergamia or Citrus aurantium subsp. bergamia. It belongs to the Rutaceae plant family and possesses many of the common characteristics of the family. The small tree has smooth, oval leaves, familiar to many of the citrus trees within this plant family. It bears a fruit which is small and round in shape and matures from green to yellow in color. Bergamot fruit resembles a small orange in appearance, except for the color.
Botanical Profile of Bergamot (Herb)
The herb bergamot is known by the botanical name of Monarda didyma. It is commonly referred to by its English name of bergamot or bee balm (because of its tendency to attract bees). Bee balm belongs to the Lamiaceae plant family and shares more characteristics in common with its fellow plant family members – such as peppermint, lavender, and sage – than that of its fruity namesake bergamot.
Bee balm is a herb native to the woodlands of North America. It bears flowers of scarlet, pink, white or purple and has green, oval leaves. The leaves have a red-colored vein running through them. The reason that bee balm is also given the name bergamot is that the aroma reminded the botanist, Dr Nicholas Mondares – whose name was given to the Latin name of the plant, Mondara – of the citrus aroma of bergamot (Citrus bergamia).
Uses of Bergamot (Fruit)
The citrus fruit bergamot is used as an essential oil in aromatherapy. It has been used in Italian folk medicine for many years. The essential oil is extracted by cold expression from the peel of the fruit. It has a sweet-fruity aroma and can be blended with other citrus essential oils for use, in addition to jasmine, lavender, and violet. Bergamot essential oil contains monoterpenes, esters, and alcohols.
Use bergamot essential oil for various types of skincare and skin problems (acne, eczema, psoriasis, cold sores, oily skin), digestive issues, colds, flu, anxiety and depression. It is an uplifting essential oil with a “sunny” aroma.
However, bergamot essential oil contains bergapten; this makes the oil photo-toxic and should not be used in sunlight or with other forms of ultra-violet light (such as tanning units). As with all essential oils, always dilute bergamot essential oil in a base oil or lotion before applying to the skin.
Uses of Bergamot (Herb)
The herb bergamot is rarely used as an essential oil in aromatherapy practice but it does have therapeutic properties for herbal medicine practice. The leaf of bee balm is used as an infusion in tea to help in the relief of insomnia, menstrual pain, nausea, and flatulence. A fresh leaf of bee balm infused with China tea will produce a flavor of Earl Grey Tea. Steam inhalation of the herb bee balm is helpful for sore throats and catarrh.
The Native American Indians used the wild purple bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) for both cold and bronchial difficulties, due to the presence of thymol, which acts as an antiseptic. Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) was used to make a tea for digestion; as it grew by the Oswego river, it commonly became known as Oswego tea. The flowering top of bee balm was also boiled by both the Ponca and Omaha Indians to make a hair oil.
The Oswaga Indians used bee balm as a drink infusion; in 1773, bee balm became popular in New England as a tea substitute after the Boston Tea Party. Today, it also has many other culinary uses including use in salads, stuffings and pork, as well as jams, jellies and home made lemonades. In the garden, it can be very aromatic if planted in places where it will be touched, releasing fragrance into the air.
Learn More About Citrus Essential Oils with Sedona Aromatherapie
Bremness, Lesley 1988 The Complete Book of Herbs London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd
Lawless, Julia 2001 The Aromatherapy Garden London: Kyle Cathie Ltd
Lawless, Julia 1995 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils UK: Thorsons
Author is a UK-certified aromatherapist, a published author in aromatherapy, an approved education provider for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), owner of an aromatherapy business, and Chief Editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal.