Sunday, September 4, 2016

Plant Confusions--The Three Bergamots

THREE unrelated plants are called bergamot, a pear, an orange and a mint.

Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot
wild bergamot
The original plant to have the name bergamot was the bergamot pear, Pyrus communis, (rose family, Rosaceae). (Link scroll down to lemon bergamot pear). Pears came to Europe from Asia before Roman times and were very popular fruits. Many sizes and shapes developed, across the Middle East and in Europe. Bergamot pears were a variety with a very round fruit. The food timeline website (link) suggests the name was from Pergamos, a village in Cyprus, because these bergamot pears
came from the Middle East during the Crusades and were also called Syrian pears. The Oxford English dictionary states the name is from their Italian name bergamotta, from the Turkish
name beg-armūdi ‘prince's pear.' Pears, including bergamots, grow well all across Europe. References to bergamots before about 1700, and somewhat later in England, mean a pear, not either of the other kinds of bergamot. Apparently bergamot pears are not grown much in the United States today: even heritage fruit sources rarely have them for sale. They are pictured in the New Oxford Book of Food Plants, suggesting greater visibility in Europe.

A round pear, but probably not a bergamot pear
Most of the literature I can google or that is in my library doesn't seem to know bergamot pears ever existed. Several sources liken bergamot oranges to pears generally, without indicating that a bergamot pear was a particular pear or that the name was transferred. (Examples link link redirected from "bergamot pear")

The second bergamot is the bergamot orange, also called bergamot lemon but frequently just bergamot. It is a citrus fruit, yellow like a lemon but the size and shape of an orange. The smell and taste are complex and distinctive. See photos online

citrus fruits
Citrus fruit, imagine it yellow,
that's the look of a bergamot orange.
The scientific name given for bergamot is often Citrus bergamia. While there is no question that the bergamot orange is a citrus fruit, genus Citrus, orange family, Rutaceae, it is also described as a variety of the bitter orange, Citrus aurantia. (Bitter oranges are also called Seville oranges and sour oranges.) The commercially available citrus fruits are all turning out to be hybrids, most of them created in southeast Asia a thousand or more years ago. Bergamot is no exception. DNA work suggests its parents were a lemon variety and the bitter orange. Both lemons and bitter oranges are themselves hybrid citrus plants from Asia.

As that explanation suggests, citrus origins are confused. The oldest reference to bergamot oranges in Europe is from 1708 in Italy. One description says it was found as a seedling. This suggests the plant originated in Italy. Certainly, this particular hybrid was not known in China. Today bergamots are grown commercially in southern Italy and southern France, Morocco and Côte d'Ivoire.

Many online references and the Oxford English Dictionary say bergamot oranges are named for Bergamo in Italy. The problem with that is that Bergamo is in Lombardy at the northern end of Italy. Oranges cannot grow there. Most (80-90%) of the world production of bergamot oil is from trees in Calabria at the southern end of Italy. In fact, only on the coast there (see map link). Until the 1870s, Italy was not unified. Calabria was part of the Kingdom of Naples. Lombardy was a part of Austria until it was annexed by the Kingdom of Italy in 1859. Bergamot oranges grown in Calabria would have been Neapolitan. Products of Bergamo would have been Lombard or Austrian. While it is possible to imagine a trading route that brought them first to Bergamo and then to England, to name them after the city of Bergamo, that seems strained. For once I'm going to disagree with the Oxford English Dictionary and suggest that bergamot oranges were named for bergamot pears, whose shape they resemble, not the city of Bergamo.

Bergamot oranges are obscure citrus fruits, except that they provide the essential oil that characterizes Earl Grey tea. Earl Grey is black tea (Chinese tea leaves from Camellia sinensis) flavored with bergamot oil. How Earl Grey came to this recipe is the subject of many stories, probably all apocryphal. The tea is attributed to Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey (1764-1845), Prime Minister of England. However, the Oxford English Dictionary in 2012 appealed to the public to find the link between Earl Grey and the tea, and it was not found. The oldest reference to "Earl Grey tea" was from 1884, long after his death. Earlier references mention a Grey mixture tea, but no connection to the Earl. A bergamot-flavored tea was referred to in 1824 but in the context of adulterating cheap tea with bergamot oil to conceal its poor quality. The OED concluded that Earl Grey was never involved with the tea that bears his name (link). That conclusion turns all the stories of how Earl Grey got the formula--from grateful Chinese mandarins for example--into fiction.

The third bergamot is wild bergamot Monarda fistulosa, also called bee balm, a mint (mint family Lamiaceae) native to North America. This plant has a spicy scent that apparently reminded early colonists in North America of the bergamot orange. You can read online that wild bergamot is the spice in Earl Grey tea, but that's confusing the bergamots. Wild bergamot is a beautiful plant that is edible and makes a reasonable tea, but it is not produced commercially for food. It appears to contain thymol, the characteristic essential oil of thyme (Thymus spp.) but not bergamot oil (link) suggesting the resemblance that gave it the name wild bergamot is superficial. It is properly called wild bergamot, distinguishing it from bergamot, but if you bought it at a garden store, calling it "wild" would seem inaccurate and is easily dropped. It may be less confusing to call it bee balm.

Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot
wild bergamot
Three very different, bergamots!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Early Grey: The results of the OED appeal on Earl Grey tea.
Vaughan, J. G. and C. A. Geissler. 1997. The new Oxford book of food plants. Oxford University Press,  New York.

Related blogs: Thyme 

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. As a child, in Romania, I was eating `pere pergamute', which were considered to be the best ones. They were yellowish, and by no means round

  2. Various Monardas grow here on N Shore Lake Superior. The all red flower aka Oswego tea has the most pleasant flavor. Less thyme than the others.

  3. This is the first blog post of yours I've read, and it certainly won't be the last. I appreciate how much research you've done! Take care.

  4. Thank you for the detailed information you have provided. Your research has helped me. I am most grateful. One word of correction: Earl Grey was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not of England.

  5. Thank you for this clarification!