Monograph-Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus)
Images of Mastic tree, flower, resin
Pistacia lentiscus is an evergreen shrub, up to 4m tall, with grey bark and leathery, green, pinnate leaves, 5-10cm long. There are usually 2 to 4 pairs of leaflets, the lower being alternate, the upper pair are opposite, these are supported on a conspicuously "winged" mid rib. Flowers, which appear between February and May, are small and unisex, borne densely on spikes. Pistacia lentiscus is dioecious having separate male and female trees. Fruits are spherical, approximately 0.5cm diameter, and contain a single seed, they ripen from September to December, starting red and maturing to a glossy black colour.
Pistacia lentiscus is known also in English as Lentisc, or Mastic Tree, due to its resinous nature. There are several scientific synonyms which are noted here to avoid confusion: Terebinthus lentiscus, Pistacia gummifera, Terebinthus vulgaris, Lentiscus massiliensis, Pistacia massiliensis. The scientific name Pistacia lentiscus has been used since the mid 1700s and all references cited here refer to the tree by this name. Pistacia lentiscus is in the same genera as Pistacia vera which produces the pistachio nut. Both are members of the Anacardiaceae otherwise known as Cashew Family. Pistacia lentiscus has a distribution around the Mediterranean shores from Syria to Spain, extending to North Africa and the Canaries. Throughout its range it is seldom found at over 1000m above sea level.
Names in other languages are as follows: French, Lentisque; Hebrew, Elat ha'mastik; Spanish, Lentisco; Italian, Lentisco; Arabic, Darou, mustik; Greek, Shinnos.
Pistacia lentiscus is native throughout the Mediterranean region, from Morocco and Iberian peninsula in the west through southern France and Turkey to Iraq and Iran in the east. It is also native to the Canary Islands. The word mastic derives either from the Greek verb mastichein ("to gnash the teeth", origin of the English word masticate) or massein ("to chew").
Within the European Union, Mastic production in Chios is granted protected designation of origin (PDO) and a protected geographical indication (PGI) name. These are granted because, although the tree is native to all of the Mediterranean region, only the mastic trees of southern Chios "weep" the masticha resin when their bark is scored. The island's mastic production is controlled by a co-operative of medieval villages, collectively known as the 'Mastichochoria' (Μαστιχοχώρια), which are also located in the southern part of Chios.
Pistacia lentiscus in History
Several archaeological digs in Cyprus uncovered remains of Pistacia lentiscus fruits which were apparently used by communities in olden times. These sites are from various ages, the oldest excavation, at Choirokoitia, dates to around 6000 BC. Further archaeological evidence, from Egypt, shows Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum was among the ingredients used by the Ancients to embalm the dead.
Over 2 millennia ago Pistacia lentiscus was familiar to and written of by the ancient Greeks. Aristophanes (452 to 385BC), poet and comic playwright, mentions an ointment which included Pistacia lentiscus among the ingredients. Dioscurides, author of an encyclopaedia about medical substances, wrote in the first century AD that the whole Pistacia lentiscus plant is astringent, leaves, stems, roots, bark and fruits. Fruit was processed to make an oil (schininon) and also to flavour wine known, to Greek speaking peoples as Schininos Oinos. Around the same period, Pliny the Elder, Roman author and naturalist (23 to 79AD) wrote of one of the commonest and oldest unguents (an ointment for spreading on wounds). Ingredients included Myrtle oil, Pomegranate rind and oil extracted from Pistacia lentiscus seed.
In more recent times fruits, fruit seed oil and the resin (mastic gum, collected from scored stems), have found a use in Mediterranean cultures.[2,3,4,5,6] In Cyprus, at the beginning of the British occupation towards the end of the 1800s, the deep green Pistacia lentiscus seed oil was regarded as one of the best oils for food (such as salad dressing) when fresh. It was also used as lamp oil for lighting. Leaves of Pistacia lentiscus, which contain around 10% tannic acid, were collected in Cyprus and exported for the purposes of tanning and dyeing. Fruits of Pistacia lentiscus were fed to goats and sheep. Strangely, despite the many Pistacia lentiscus trees growing in Cyprus, Pistacia lentiscus resin was imported from the Island of Chios in the Grecian Archipelago. Called "Chios Mastic" it was used as a mouth freshener and chewing gum by virtue of the fact that it becomes plastic when chewed. From the 12th century AD until 1566, when the Turks captured Chios, this island was the richest in the Aegean Sea, this was chiefly due to its trade in mastic gum as there was a ready market for it in Constantinople and throughout the region.
Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum is used to flavour cordials and also a type of liqueur known as Mastika. Varnish can be made from the mastic gum by dissolving it in a suitable solvent, such as turpentine or chloroform, with or without the addition of linseed oil. Being insoluble in water, mastic gum was occasionally used by dentists, mixed to form a cement and employed as filling for tooth cavities. During the early 1900s, various surgeons recommended dissolving mastic gum of Pistacia lentiscus in benzol for sterilizing skin adjacent to wounds.
Pistacia lentiscus plant
Mastic gum production on the Greek island of Chios continues to this day, the variety of bush grown there, Pistacia lentiscus var. chia is particularly suited to resin production. Harvest takes place during summer, incisions are made through the bark of the trunk and principal branches. A liquid resin exudes like tears from the cuts and, over 2 to 3 weeks dries into brittle, yellow, translucent granules. Mastic gum has an agreeable but slight balsamic odour and mild bitter taste which has been likened to turpentine.
Current Localised Uses
Traditional foods in Cyprus such as vasilopites (New Year's cake), koulouria (Greek biscuit) and cheese pies use an extract from Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum to add a subtlety of flavouring. The fruits are used in cookery, as a condiment and specifically to flavour spicy Cyprus sausages also mixed with dough and baked to a crust called sinnopites. Smoke from burning Pistacia lentiscus branches and leaves gives a distinctive flavour to the smoke cured meats, Hiromeri and Lountza.[2,4]
In Morocco Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum is used to add aroma to mint tea and coffee, bread and cakes. Similarly in both Palestine and Portugal it is used to flavour sweet dishes. Pistacia lentiscus has further uses in Morocco. The local mastic gum is chewed to freshen the breath and as an ingredient in cosmetic product. Pistacia lentiscus fruit seed, which is approximately 25% oil, has culinary uses. It is suitable for salads and is also used in oil lamps for lighting. As in the past leaves and bark are used in the process of tanning. The leaves are used as litter on which figs are placed during drying to avoid spoilage of the figs by worms. Interestingly, crude extracts from Pistacia lentiscus leaves and essential oil of the leaves has been shown to have antifungal properties.[9,10]
Constituents of Pistacia lentiscus Mastic Gum
The main active components of Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum are the following terpenes: alpha-Pinene, beta-myrcene, beta-pinene, limonene, and beta-caryophyllene. Of the essential oil fraction, which is about 2% of the mastic gum, there are a few trace elements whose presence contributes markedly to the antimicrobial behaviour of Pistacia lentiscus mastic essential oil. These are verbenone, alpha-terpineol, and linalool. Some bacteria are more sensitive to one or other and so it has been concluded that the antibacterial efficacy is due to their synergistic action.
Production process of the Chios mastic
Little has changed in the mastic production process from the ancient times until today. The exploitation of the trees for the extraction mastic (their resin), starts from the fifth year of their life. The period of their cultivation is from July until the beginning of October. The first step in the process is the leveling and cleaning of the perimeter around the trunk of the tree, where the mastic falls. The next step is the spread of white soil (calcium carbonate powder) on this area in order to facilitate gathering without altering its chemical composition. Then the "kentos" starts, in other words the carving of scars (incisions) on the skin of the tree. The incisions are made systematically: 5-10 on each tree, every 4-5 days. The resin flows progressively from the incisions, falling on the ground where it solidifies gradually, providing either large chunks ("pites") or smaller ones ("psilo"). These chunks, once collected, are cleaned by the mastic producers and their families through a tedious process that typically lasts throughout the winter.
Gum mastic is produced from June until September and, if the weather conditions are abnormally warm, in October. But the collection is 'governed by Law 4381' from July 15th to October 15th, when the coagulation becomes uniform. What does this Law say? "It is prohibited to make cuttings on gum mastic trees and gum mastic collection before July 15th and after October 15th, every year. The last date can be extended for a fortnight by the prefect's permission."
There are 21 mastic villages in the south of Chios, the only area to grow and produce gum mastic. Many people believe a miracle explains the origins of the Schinos, a miracle concerning the body of saint Isidoros that was dragged under the Schinos and for his blood God blessed Schinos to produce gum mastic. Another theory is that Schinos started to cry with real tears when it saw Saint Isidoros' body. But the truth is what occurs is due to undersea volcanoes.
The intensity and extension of cultivation of the gum mastic tree for commercial use seems to start from the period of saint Isidoros' martyrdom. This conclusion is reached because, as I said, according to tradition a miracle concerning this saint resulted in gum mastic. It is therefore possible that the cultivation of the gum mastic tree was generalized from saint Isidoros' period and for this reason the tradition correlated with his martyrdom.
Gum Mastic - Mastic Tree
Medicinal uses of Pistacia lentiscus
Most modern research into medicinal properties of Pistacia lentiscus has considered its mastic gum. Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum has been consumed for centuries without reported ill effects. A study which incorporated significant amounts of the resin into the diet of rats also found no significant adverse effect.
Pistacia lentiscus Flower
Anti-inflammatory Activity of Pistacia lentiscus
According to traditional medicine in Tunisia, sufferers of asthma (which is an inflammatory disease) benefit from use of Pistacia lentiscus. The anti-inflammatory effects of Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum, was investigated in mice suffering from allergic asthma. Promising results lead researchers to conclude that Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum could perhaps contribute to the treatment of inflammatory diseases. Anti-inflammatory activity of Pistacia lentiscus var. chia mastic gum was investigated in human aortic cells. More promising results lead the authors to suggest that their study may aid in design of new therapies for the treatment of atherosclerosis.
Triterpenes taken from Pistacia lentiscus var. chia mastic gum are proven to exert antioxidant effect and help prevent plaque build up in the arteries causing arteriosclerosis. Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum powder, given as a supplement, reduced cholesterol levels in volunteers; this suggests a cardio protective role was being played by the Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum.
Mastic Gum from Pistacia lentiscus may have a role in Cancer Prevention
"Chios mastic" gum contains substances which inhibit and induce death of human colon cancer cells. Studies which looked at prostate cancer and leukaemia,[19,20,21] found multiple anti-cancer effects. Mastic gum oil may be a useful natural dietary supplement against cancer or may be developed into a cancer treatment agent.
A medical trial conducted at a Greek hospital on a group of over 100 patients suffering from functional dyspepsia showed promising results. Some patients received 350mg of Pistacia lentiscus var. chia mastic gum 3 times daily over a 3 week period, the remainder were given a placebo. Both groups of patients showed improvement however, individuals who had been taking the Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum showed significantly more improvement in the following symptoms: stomach pain in general, stomach pain when anxious, dull ache in the upper abdomen and heartburn.
Peptic ulcers have been shown to be infected with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Several research projects looked at the effect of treatment of Helicobacter pylori infection with Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum; not all drew positive conclusions.[24,25] One study conducted by Paraschos et al made attempted to approximate the habit of chewing mastic as gum. Here is an excerpt from their discussion, " The present study demonstrated that a mastic gum extract without the polymer constituent poly-B-myrcene was effective in reducing Helicobacter pylori colonisation levels by 30-fold in infected mice over an administration period of 3 months and that the activity could be attributed to triterpenic acids within the acid fraction of mastic gum extracts." Although Helicobacter pylori has not been eradicated in these studies Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum has proved an effective medicine for reducing levels ofHelicobacter pylori infection. The emergence of microbes which are resistant to antibiotics makes treatments such as this all the more important to prevent antibiotics from becoming ineffective.[26,27]
Commercial Products made with Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum
Mastic gum has been produced commercially from Pistacia lentiscus for centuries and has many diverse uses which include, production of varnishes and adhesives, as chewing gum and for use in photography and lithography.
There are various types of consumer products made with Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum or containing mastic gum essential oil. Products such as, chewing gums, capsules and dietary supplements; shower gel and body cream; some nougat confectionary; perfumes, eau de toilette and cologne and liqueurs. Pistacia lentiscus mastic gum is also sold 'by-the-jar' described for use in sweets, cooking and medicines and the mastic gum granules can be bought in their raw state one suggested use being to burn as incense.
Some scholars identify the bakha בכא mentioned in the Bible with the mastic plant. The word bakha appears to be derived from the Hebrew word for weeping, and is thought to refer to the "tears" of resin secreted by the mastic plant.
In ancient Jewish halachic sources, it is indicated that chewing mastic was a treatment for bad breath. "Mastic is not chewed on shabbat. When (is it permissible to chew mastic on shabbat nonetheless)? When the intention is medicinal. If it is against a bad odor, it is permissible." Shabbat (Talmud) Chapter 13, Mishnah 7
Mastic is an essential ingredient of chrism, the holy oil used for anointing by the Orthodox Churches.
Chios Gum Mastic – Freshly Harvested vs. Commercial Resin and its Implications to Aging of Varnishes
MASTIC OF CHIOS A MIRACLE OF THE NATURE?
Mastic Is More Than An Antibacterial
Scholarly Research on chemistry of Mastic