The lentisk is a typical tree species in our Mediterranean scrubland. It holds significant importance in forestry and has a long tradition in rural settings due to its various uses.This plant is known as mastic tree, due to its extensive resin production from the trunk, historically used in folk medicine and recently re-evaluated for medicinal purposes. Lentisk is a very hardy shrub that adapts well to challenging environmental conditions, making it one of the best species for environmental requalification in marginal areas, especially those with steep and rocky slopes. Its cultivation in domestic settings is recommended for ornamental purposes in poor soils. As it is commonly used in floriculture, it is quite easily available in the market.
Let’s delve deeper into the botanical characteristics of the lentisk, its properties, uses, and cultivation techniques.
Identification and Geographic Distribution of Lentisk
Lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus) is a shrub of the botanical family Anacardiaceae. This family also includes the pistachio (Pistacia vera). One of the main uses of lentisk is as a rootstock for pistachios. Lentisk is an evergreen shrub, typical of our scrubland and the Mediterranean basin, where it originates. It is particularly found along the coastal strip but also in inland areas, from sea level up to 600 meters. In Italy, it is mainly found in the wild on major islands, the Ligurian coast, and the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic slopes. While not a colonizer, in degraded environments, it can dominate, especially in areas affected by repeated fires. It holds great ecological importance as it quickly restores excellent vegetation coverage on burnt grounds. This action is possible due to its horizontal development. Even if branches are destroyed by fire, its remarkable budding capacity enables immediate new growth.
Botanical Characteristics of Lentisk
Branches and Leaves
Lentisk has a shrub-bushy appearance, especially in the wild. However, it can be found or cultivated as a small tree. In its bushy form, it reaches heights varying from 1 meter to 3 meters, while as a tree, it reaches heights of 6-8 meters. The plant’s vegetative activity is prominent in spring and, secondarily, in autumn-winter. Even in summer and in dry conditions, the shrub’s canopy remains vividly green. Lentisk has a strong resinous odor and is highly branched. The branches show a scattered arrangement and quickly lignify. They tend to grow horizontally and contain numerous resin-rich channels. The lentisk bark is ashy in color in young branches, becoming reddish-brown in adult plant trunks. The bark surface is slightly scaly. The leaves are sparsely arranged on the branches, pinnate with 8-10 blunt segments. They are elliptical-lanceolate in shape, measuring 7-9 mm in width and 22-30 mm in length. Dark green in color, they have a leathery texture and a smooth surface.
Flowers and Fruits
The lentisk plant is dioecious, like many other plants, such as hemp. This means it has male and female flowers on separate plants. The flowers are borne in short cylindrical spikes, positioned at the axil of the leaves of the branches developed in the previous year. Male flowers consist of 4-5 stamens and a rudimentary pistil. They are quite showy and attractive due to the presence of reddish-purple stamens. Female flowers, on the other hand, are green, with a superior ovary and absent petals. Pollination is anemophilous, carried out by the wind. Lentisk blooms from March to May in spring. It is highly appreciated by bees and other pollinating insects, although they don’t carry out pollination, they collect the pollen anyway. Lentisk fruits are small lenticular drupes, with a diameter of 4-5 mm. They are reddish when unripe, turning black and fleshy at full maturity. Fruit ripening occurs towards late autumn, in November and December. Each drupe contains a single seed, dispersed in the soil by birds and ants, which are fond of the berries.
Properties and Uses of Lentisk
Lentisk holds great importance in the folk tradition of Mediterranean countries due to its versatile uses. Let’s explore some of them.
In ancient times, lentisk drupes were used to extract a vegetable oil. This oil bears strong similarities to olive oil and was used as a substitute, especially in poor areas and times of famine. Apart from its use in cooking, lentisk oil has soothing properties on the skin. It was also employed in the past as a wound disinfectant. It was also used as a fuel for oil lamps. Over time, these uses dwindled due to the difficulty in collecting the berries and their low yield compared to olives.
Lentisk Essential Oil
Apart from the oil obtained from cold-pressing the fruits, it is possible to produce lentisk essential oil. Essential oils are extracted through a distillation process of the plant we’ve already discussed and which you can produce at home.
Lentisk oil has balsamic, toning, and refreshing properties and is used in essence diffusers to purify and scent the air.
It works wonders as a relaxant and anti-rheumatic agent, perfect for a relaxing bath. Lentisk essential oil is known for its anti-inflammatory, sedative, astringent, and antiseptic properties on mucous membranes. Hence, it serves as a natural remedy for airway and urinary tract issues. Used in mouthwashes and gargles, it’s effective against gingivitis, periodontitis, sore throat, bad breath, and oral inflammation. It can also be used for urogenital washes, for the topical treatment of cystitis, urethritis, ureteritis, leukorrhea, and prostatitis.
As mentioned, lentisk is well-known for resin production. From this, Chios mastic is obtained, named after the Greek island of Chios where it is extensively produced. Incisions made on the trunk or major branches cause the resin to seep out. On contact with air, it solidifies, becoming mastic, a sort of natural gum. With its characteristic smell and taste, mastic can be chewed, becoming a malleable paste that adheres to the teeth. Due to its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, it appears to be excellent against gingivitis, periodontitis, and periodontosis, the main cause of tooth loss. It also freshens breath and gives a sensation of cleanliness and freshness. In herbal medicine, it’s believed that Chios mastic inhibits the growth of dangerous food-contaminating bacteria like salmonella and staphylococci. It also seems to halt the proliferation of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium, responsible for ulcers. Chios mastic is easily available online, with various commercial formulations.
Lentisk lends itself to many other uses; for instance, its berries can flavor meats. In ancient times, the residue from oil extraction was used as animal feed due to its excellent dietary characteristics. In the industrial field, mastic derived from the resin is used as an adhesive substance, for example, in painting. Dissolved in turpentine, it produces an ideal varnish to complete tempera and oil paintings. The excellent lentisk wood is used in crafts. Thanks to its hardness and veined red color, it’s excellent for small lathe carpentry works. We’ve already discussed the importance of lentisk as a forestry plant, but it’s essential to underline its ornamental significance in covering rocky and challenging terrains for other species. Moreover, its leaves and small branches are highly sought after and appreciated in the floriculture market for mixed floral compositions.
Cultivation of Lentisk
Being a hardy shrub species, lentisk adapts well to challenging environments. It withstands winter cold well, even enduring temperatures as low as -7 °C. Prolonged frosts, however, might cause damage. Hence, in regions with harsher winters, positioning the plant in a very sunny place is recommended. Wind, on the other hand, isn’t a problem; the plant withstands strong gusts well. In exposed areas, the lentisk’s canopy takes on a characteristic comb or cushion shape.
Soil, Water, and Fertilization
Lentisk’s hardiness is confirmed by its specific soil requirements. The shrub is indifferent to different types of agricultural soil and thrives in both loose and rocky soils. Naturally, it grows best in cool, deep soil. The soil’s pH also doesn’t affect lentisk growth; the plant adapts to both acidic and alkaline soils. Lentisk also doesn’t require much water except in the first year after planting. During extremely hot and dry periods, watering every 15-20 days with young plants promotes continued growth. Nutrient requirements are also quite limited. The shrub isn’t demanding but can benefit from moderate nutrient supplementation, especially at the time of planting. We advise against strong fertilizers like mature manure but rather a milder fertilization using earthworm humus.
Lentisk is primarily propagated from seeds, which should be planted in autumn immediately after harvesting.
It’s good to remove the pulp from the berry right after harvesting, completing the operation by soaking the seeds in water. This way, we can eliminate those floating seeds that are unlikely to germinate. Soaking the seeds in water for a few hours before sowing also aids subsequent germination. Seeding can also be done in spring, using cleaned seeds stored in the fridge. The seed is placed in a small-sized pot, where it’s best to leave it until a strong enough plant forms to be transplanted into the soil. However, considering the high demand for lentisk in floristry, many nurseries offer potted plants. These are ready for transplanting into the soil, which can be done either in autumn or at the beginning of spring.
Lentisk is a plant that thrives when left to grow freely. Pruning is necessary only if one wants to train the plant as a small tree, for ornamental purposes. Naturally, it’s advisable to periodically remove dry or damaged branches.
Regarding pest attacks, with lentisk, one needs to be particularly careful about aphid infestations, especially those belonging to the species Aploneura lentisci, a specific parasite of lentisk. The presence of aphids can be managed through the use of natural macerates, such as nettle and garlic infusions. Another problematic insect for lentisk is the scale insect, particularly species like Ceroplastes ruscii, Philippia olae, and Saissetia oleae. For biological defense against scale insects, a fern macerate is highly effective.