The “Weeping” Tree and Its Versatile “Tears”
‘Take balsam for pain,’ says Jeremiah 51:8. A search for one of the sources of this highly soothing and healing substance takes us to the island of Chios, in the Aegean Sea.
IN EARLY summer, farmers on Chios prepare for harvest in a very unusual way. After they sweep the ground, they make a flat base of white clay around shrublike evergreens called mastic trees. The farmers then make incisions in the bark, causing the trees to “weep.” Pale “tears” of resin start to ooze out. After two or three weeks, the drops of resin coagulate and the farmers collect them, either directly from the trunk or from the clay surface below. These “tears,” called gum mastic, have been used to make balsam.
Before harvesting, however, patience and hard work are required. The twisted, gray tree trunks grow very slowly. It takes 40 to 50 years for a tree to reach full growth—normally a height of from six to ten feet [2-3 m].
Besides the labor of cutting the trunks and gathering the “tears,” further work is required to produce mastic. After farmers have collected the mastic “tears,” they sift, wash, and sort these by size and quality. Later, the mastic is further cleaned and can then be put to many uses.
The History of a Precious Plant
The Greek word for “mastic” is related to a term that means “to gnash the teeth.” This name suggests that from ancient times, mastic resin has been used as a chewing gum to freshen the breath.
The oldest information on mastic comes from Herodotus, Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E. Other ancient authors and physicians—including Apollodorus, Dioscorides, Theophrastus, and Hippocrates—mentioned mastic’s medical uses. Although mastic trees grow all along the Mediterranean Coast, since about 50 C.E., the production of mastic has been confined almost exclusively to Chios. And mastic was the main interest of those who conquered Chios, from the Romans to the Genoese to the Ottomans.
Ancient Egyptian physicians used mastic to treat various ailments, including diarrhea and arthritis. They also used it as incense and in mummification. The mastic tree may have been one of the sources of the ‘balsam of Gilead,’ noted in the Bible for its medicinal properties and for its use in cosmetics and embalming. (Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11) It has even been suggested that the tree yielding stacte, one of the ingredients of the perfumed holy incense limited to sacred use, might belong to the family of mastic trees.—Exodus 30:34, 35.
Today, mastic is found in varnishes that protect oil paintings, furniture, and musical instruments. It is used as an insulating and waterproofing material, and it is considered one of the best color stabilizers for clothing dyes and artists’ paints. Mastic has also been used in adhesives and in leather tanning. Because of its pleasant aroma and other properties, mastic is used in soap, cosmetics, and perfumes.
Mastic has been described in 25 official lists of medicines worldwide. It is still frequently used in traditional medicines in the Arab world. Mastic also finds a place in dental cements and in the internal coatings of drug capsules.
As a source of balsam, the versatile “tears” of the “weeping” mastic tree have soothed and healed for centuries. For good reason, then, Jeremiah’s prophecy says: ‘Take balsam for pain.’
[Pictures on page 31]
Harvesting the mastic
Mastic “tears” are carefully collected
Chios and harvest line art: Courtesy of Korais Library; all others: Kostas Stamoulis