Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

George Arisitidou from Great British Bake-offI fully admit to living under a rock. Many a friend and coworker has informed me of this character “trait.” Because I am not so worldly as others, I learn things by more circuitous routes. For example, my latest herbal discovery resulted from watching a recent episode of The Great British Bake Off. George, one of the bakers, remarked that he was including mastic in his bake. Of course, Paul Hollywood, one of the show’s hosts, commented with raised eyebrow, “A little mastic goes a long way.” George returned fire, stating, “You can never have too much mastic!” Clearly, mastic was near and dear to this Greek baker’s heart.

Unless you’re familiar with Greek cuisine or custom, as I am not, you may not have come across mastic–also known as Chios mastiha–in your comings and goings. But, if you are anything like me, you’d immediately start rooting around for information about this herbal ingredient, like a squirrel for a nut. I’ll save you some digging.

Map of Pistacia lentiscus native rangeMastic is a resin extracted from Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia L. (Chios mastictree, mastic), which is a member of the Anacardiaceae family (GRIN-Global; Browicz, 1987). (Cashew, Anacardium occidentale L., and pistachio, Pistacia vera L., are also members of this family.) This small shrubby tree is native to numerous countries around the Mediterranean, from southern Europe to northern Africa to western Asia (Sturtevant, 1919), but it is most notably—and historically—linked to the Greek island of Chios in the northern Aegean Sea, about nine miles west (the way a crow flies) of the Turkish Çeşme peninsula.

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

It’s so linked to this island, in fact, that the island is referred to as the “mastic island,” since it has been the world’s largest producer of mastic resin for many years (Groom, 1992). “The production of mastic currently amounts to 160—170 tons per annum and plays an important role in the economy of the island Mastic harvesting preparationconstituting the main source of income for approximately twenty villages in the south of Chios” (Browicz, 1987). The trees reach their full height after 40 – 50 years, but harvesting reaches its full potential after 12 – 15 years (FAO, 2021). Similar to frankincense (Boswellia spp.) and myrrh (Commiphora spp.), the mastic harvester nicks the tree bark to produce “tears,” or droplets, of resin, which then harden and are scraped off. These hardened blobs of resin are gathered and taken for processing (masticlife.com).

The resin undergoes some in-house cleaning and processing before it is given to the cooperative, Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA), for grading. Afterward, the graded mastic gum is shipped to and processed by the Union of Mastic Producers, who grinds it into a powder (FAO, 2021). The powdered form can then be incorporated into various foodstuffs, medicinal products (Varro et al., 1988), or left whole for chewing. Mastic is considered an early form of chewing gum, particularly for freshening the breath (Schery, 1972; Simpson and Ogorzaly, 2001; Sturtevant, 1919; Tyler et al., 1988). Currently, the largest importer of Chios mastic is Saudi Arabia, where chewing gum companies have incorporated the tree resin into numerous candy and confectionery products, particularly those of the dietetic variety (Batook, 2021; FAO, 2021).

Greek plants: Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, SyrosIf you haven’t picked up on the etymological relationship by now, translated from the Greek, mastic means “to gnash the teeth,” or in modern parlance, to chew or masticate…an appropriate term for the gummy treasure. Spurred on by the mention of it on The Great British Bake Off, I was on the hunt for this chewy, new-to-me herb. Fortunately, we have a husband-and-wife team of volunteers in the National Herb Garden, who just happened to live in Greece for a number of years. What better resource than these two to probe for information—outside of knowing a native of Chios, of course.

Bottles of mastika and ouzoThey confirmed that mastic was, indeed, a ubiquitous flavoring in parts of Greece, including its use in mastika, a sweet liquor flavored with the resin (something else I had never heard of before) and ouzo, another Greek spirit. They said that you can find mastic gum and Turkish delight-esque candies all over Chios (well, in Greece, generally, and also in surrounding areas), as well as in well-appointed Mediterranean markets, even in the United States. I asked them what it tastes like, and they both hemmed and hawed trying to find the right words to describe its unique flavor. I immediately assumed it would be “pine-y” or “camphor-y” or something of the sort, since it is a tree resin, after all, but they both still hemmed seeming to suggest that it wasn’t exactly that strong. 

Well, what then? What does it taste like? The only remedy for this inquisition was for them to seek out a market near where they live outside of Washington, DC, that might carry some sort of mastic-containing products. And they delivered! The following week, I was handed not just mastic chewing gum, but also mastic jellied candy. The candy was passed around amongst our volunteer group, and those adventurous enough to try plucked out a confectioner’s sugar-covered cube and commenced to masticate.

Mastic jellied candyThey were right: not exactly pine-y, but not exactly anything else either. I moved the candy around in my mouth trying to find words to describe it. Yes, it certainly had resinous, “pine-y” kinds of notes, but it also had a bit of a flowery essence to it. It was certainly unlike what I was expecting. Not nearly as strong as I thought it would be, but also not without character.

Not being particularly chef-y (I’m more of the baking sort), I’ve been trying to imagine what it would taste like in cooked or baked goods. Given that mastic rides that pine-y line, a heavy-handed cook might well overdo it. (Paul Hollywood was not without legitimate concern.) It’s a bit like using rose or lavender in food preparations: too much, and it can veer dangerously close to soap territory. But, used in moderation, it could pair nicely with other herbs/flavors. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!

Picture of Fahrenheit pefumeSpeaking of other herbal uses, mastic is also found in perfumes, personal hygiene products, and medicines. The resin has been used for centuries as a component of incense, particularly for the production of “moscholivano, [which] is a solid essence that, when burned, releases a pleasant odour” (FAO, 2021) and as an ingredient in chrism, the anointing oil used in the Eastern Orthodox Church (and others). In The Perfume Book, Groom says, “In early times the gum was used in pomanders and the oil was used to absorb other plant fragrances in the process of enfleurage. In modern perfumery, the extracted oil is used as a fixative in various perfume compounds; it appears, for example, in ‘Fahrenheit’.” According to Verrill, the resin is used as “a fixative for honeysuckle, lavender, sweet pea, mimosa, and other perfumes” (1940).

Medicinally, mastic has taken on a number of roles over the centuries. In early Greek history, mastic was considered a cure-all in traditional Greek medicine, “relieving the diverse gastrointestinal disorders, such as abdominal pain, dyspepsia, gastritis and peptic ulcer for more than 2.500 [sic] years. More precisely, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galenos, among other Ancient Greek physicians, cited its properties and recommended its use” (CGMGA, 2021). A lengthy paper published by the Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association states,

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

“Nowadays, it is used as a seasoning in Mediterranean cuisine, in the production of chewing gum, in perfumery, in dentistry, and for the relief of epigastric pain and protection against peptic ulcer. It is of vital importance to mention that solid scientific evidence is constantly being produced regarding the therapeutic activity of Chios Mastiha. Its gastro-intestinal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, and anticancer activity, as well as its beneficial effects in oral hygiene and in skin care are firmly documented…. Mastiha is considered now as a traditional medicine for both stomach disorders and skin/wounds [sic] inflammations” (2019). In the Greek City Times, 12 December 2021, the authors note that studies of mastic’s wide-ranging health benefits are ongoing, merely echoing, perhaps, what thousands of Chios natives have known for centuries. (Some of us are a little slow on the uptake!)

Picture of megilp varnishIf you thought this story was over…not so fast. Mastic has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Mastic is used as a component of dental fillings, in dentifrices, and mouthwashes, helping to knock down pesky bacteria in the mouth. It should also be noted that “thanks to its quality as a colour stabilizer, mastiha is used for the production of high-grade varnishes” (CGMGA), such as those used in oil painting (megilp), and as a protective coating on photographic negatives. Rosin, a by-product of gum mastic’s distillation process, is used in myriad industries as well.

To put an exclamation mark at the end of this herbal story, mastic is certainly not a one-trick pony. On the contrary, I think Paul Hollywood was wrong and George was right: “You can never have too much mastic!” Something to chew on.

Photo Credits: 1) Baker George Arisitidou from Great British Bake Off (radiotimes.com); 2) Nativity map of Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Botanical Museum, Helsinki, Finland); 3) Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros (John Winder); 4) Mastic harvesting preparation (masticlife.com); 5) Mastic resin “tears” (Creative Commons–Ailinaleixo) and mastic resin (Creative Commons–פארוק); 6) Pistacia lentiscus leaves and fruit (John Winder); 7) Bottles of mastika and ouzo (Public Domain); 8) Mastic candy and chewing gum (C. Moore); 9) Mastic jellied candy (C. Moore); 10) Fahrenheit perfume (Public Domain); 11) Mastic toothpaste (ANEMOS); 12) Megilp containing mastic (Public Domain).

References

Batook, Incorporated. 2021. http://www.batook.com/about/. Accessed 16 December 2021.

Browicz, Kazimierz. 1987. Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Anacardiaceae) on Chios Island.
Plant systematics and evolution, Vol. 155, No. 1/4, pp. 189-195. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23673827. Accessed 16 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). https://www.gummastic.gr/en#gkContent. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). 2019. Overview of the major scientific publications on the beneficial activity of Chios mastiha. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.gummastic.gr//images/brochures/en/Scientific_References_2019_en.pdf. Accessed 15 December 2021.

Greek City Times. https://greekcitytimes.com/2021/12/10/mastic-tree-resin-is-one-of-greeces-most-valuable-products/. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The University of Arizona Arboretum. https://apps.cals.arizona.edu/arboretum/taxon.aspx?id=216. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Forest resource utilisation and management in the Mediterranean. https://www.fao.org/3/x5593e/x5593e03.htm. Accessed 15 December 2021.

GRIN-Global Database. https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxon/taxonomydetail?id=28647. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Groom, Nigel. 1992. The perfume handbook, p. 142. London: Chapman & Hall.

“Mastic: Cultivation and Processing.” masticlife.com. https://masticlife.com/pages/mastic-cultivation-harvest-production. Accessed 4 January 2022.

Schery, Robert W. 1972. Pectins, gums, resins, oleoresins, and similar exudates, p. 244. In: Plants for man. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Simpson, Beryl B., Molly C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Hydrogels, elastic latexes, and resins, p. 259. In: Economic botany: plants in our world, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sturtevant, Edward. 1919. Sturtevant’s notes on edible plants, p. 440. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, State Printers.

Verrill, A. Hyatt. 1940. Perfumes and spices including an account of soaps and cosmetics, p. 259. Clinton, Mass.: L.C. Page and Company.

Tyler, Varro E., Lynn R. Brady, and James E. Robbers. 1988. Resins and resin combinations, p. 143. In: Pharmacognosy, 9th Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lea & Febiger.

Uphof, J.C. Th. 1968. Dictionary of economic plants, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Lubrecht & Cramer Ltd.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

An Incredible Herb Right Under Our Feet…or Above Our Heads

By Katherine Schlosser

For most of us, our garden tools are cleaned and stored, the holidays have passed, and we have a little more time to simply enjoy what we find in meadows, forests, fields, and even in our own backyards. Lichens can fill a part of the void we may be feeling. Their curious forms and means of growing and spreading, with which many of us are unfamiliar, can fill our minds with the wonders of things we normally pass without notice.  

There are more than 5,000 species of lichen and lichen-dependent fungi in North America, with colors ranging from blues, lavender, yellow, red, orange, and gray to many beautiful greens. Color in lichens can depend on whether they are wet or dry. A major paint company even created a color they call Lichen to mimic the natural, earthy beauty of the organism. Perfectly described by Ed Yong in a July 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “They can look like flecks of peeling paint, or coralline branches, or dustings of powder, or lettuce-like fronds, or wriggling worms, or cups that a pixie might drink from.”

The forms lichens take are grouped in one of several general types, including:

Foliose – mostly flat with leaf-like structures, with each side having a different appearance 

Fruticose – may have tiny “branches” and a bushy appearance

Crustose – appear like flat, crusty painted spots on trees, branches, logs, roof, or rocks

Other forms include:

Filamentous – stringy and hair-like

Gelatinous – jelly-like and somewhat formless 

Leprose – have a powdery appearance

Squamulose – small, flat leafy scales with raised tips

Lichens have been used by humans for thousands of years, mostly as medicinals but also as foods, beverages, dyestuffs, cosmetics, brewing, animal fodder—even as an indicator of atmospheric pollution. As useful as they have been, our understanding of lichens has been slow.

Until the late 1800s, lichens were still thought of as plants. In 1868 Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist, identified them as a fungus and an alga living in a cooperative relationship. Later botanists recognized the relationship as mutually beneficial, with the alga using sunlight to produce nutrients and the fungus providing shelter, water, and minerals.

Lichen, Rough speckled shield -BRP 4-30-09

Botanists held with the partnership assumption, even though they struggled unsuccessfully to get lichens to grow in the lab. What they were missing was brought to light 150 years later by Tony Spribille, who spent years collecting lichen samples and screening them for genes of basidiomycete fungi. 

What had been missed by generations of lichenologists was basidiomycetes, the third member in the partnership of lichens. With the right combination of two fungi and an algal species, a lichen would form. There is much more to learn, but thanks to Spribille, the journey has begun.

Quoting Ed Yong again, Spribille and his associates found that, through a microscope, “a lichen looks like a loaf of ciabatta: it has a stiff, dense crust surrounding a spongy, loose interior. The alga is embedded in the thick crust. The familiar ascomycete fungus is there too, but it branches inwards, creating the spongy interior. And the basidiomycetes? They’re in the outermost part of the crust, surrounding the other two partners. ‘They’re everywhere in that outer layer,’ says Spribille.” And the mystery was solved.

The most frequently noticed are the crustose lichens seen on trees, often looking like someone spray-painted blotches on tree trunks, or left a trail marker. These can vary from shades of gray to greens, blues, and yellows. They are attractive to me but lead some to think their tree has been attacked by disease.  

No need to panic; these lichens don’t sink their “teeth” through the bark and into the tree. However, there are some lichens that contribute to the breakdown, or weathering, by physical and chemical processes, of the rocks to which they are attached. Physical effects occur by penetration of the rocks by hyphae and the swelling of organic and inorganic salts. Chemical processes include the “excretion of various organic acids, particularly oxalic acid, which can effectively dissolve minerals” (Chen 2000). The result is the eventual breakdown of rock into the mix of ingredients making our soil.

Pixie cup lichen and Dracanum moss spp IMG_4681As an aside, Alexandra Rodrigues and associates inoculated newly created stained glass samples with fungi previously isolated and identified on original stained glass windows. They found that “fungi produced clear damage on all glass surfaces, present as spots and stains, fingerprints, biopitting, leaching and deposition of elements, and formation of biogenic crystals”  (Rodrigues et al, 2014). Let that be a warning to keep your stained glass windows clean. 

Of particular interest to members of The Herb Society of America are the useful aspects of these frequently overlooked species that are building blocks of our green planet. Found growing in moist, shady places, they also thrive in hot, dry lands. Though widely spread across the globe, growing on cold mountaintops to hot deserts on rocks, trees, fallen logs, on fertile soil or dry crust, each species has specific nutrient, air, water, light, and substrate requirements.

They vary widely in usability too, from serving as alerts for the presence of air pollution to providing survival food. Rock tripe, most often seen as green to black leafy-looking masses on boulders, might be the last thing you would consider putting into your mouth, but it turns out that, for thousands of years, they have saved people from starvation. After boiling and draining a few times, they can be made into a soup, even if barely palatable. 

Cetraria islandica, Darya Masalova CC-BY-NCOne of the more interesting lichens is known as Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica ), which first came to my attention in the form of Fjallagrasa Icelandic Schnapps. If you look closely at the bottle pictured, you will see a sprig of the lichen in the bottle. Hand picked from the wilderness of Iceland, the lichen is steeped in alcohol, which extracts the color and flavor of the lichen. Sadly, I have not tasted it myself but have heard from a friend, and read, that it is a drink that requires a slight adjustment of expectations. Regardless, I’m almost willing to make the trip to Iceland just for the experience. The manufacturer recommends drinking “in moderation in the company of good friends”—a sound recommendation.

Beyond alcohol, this particular lichen has multiple medicinal uses, too. The active compounds in Icelandic moss have demonstrated antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties (Grujicˇic´ et al., 2014).The mucilaginous compounds (polysaccharides) aid in soothing oral and pharyngeal membranes, relieving coughs of common colds.

Scandinavian countries were long known to use Icelandic moss in making breads and soups. They dried the moss, reconstituted it, then dried it again and ground it to mix into flour. Due to the polysaccharides, the lichen added structure as well as flavor. Many other cultures used it as an addition to flour to cut the expense of flour. Used far less now, over the years, it was an important source of nutrients for many people.

Parmotrema perlatum, commonly known as black stone flower, is used as a spice in India and elsewhere, and is often added to Garam Masala blends. As found, it has no fragrance; exposed to the heat of cooking, it releases an earthy, smoky aroma. 

Unlikely as it sounds, some lichens can be fragrant, and some act as a fixative in the preparation of cosmetics and perfumes. Oakmoss lichen, used in perfumery, is found on oak trees, as well as a few other deciduous trees and pines.

A number of lichens are used in the dyeing and tanning industries. If you took high school science, you are familiar with Litmus strips. Those strips are made from litmus, which is obtained from a couple of species of lichens, Roccella tinctoria and Lasallia pustulata.

Winter may be upon us, but there is still plenty to see and study right under our noses in the garden, yard, and out walking on trails. Take notes, take photos, and spend a lazy afternoon identifying what you have found and what uses it may have. Future ventures into the forest will hold considerably more interest for you.

Enjoy!

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) Old man’s beard (Usnea articulate), a fruticose lichen, photo taken in Linville Falls, NC 2009 (Kathy Schlosser); 2) Lobaria pulmonaria, tree lungwort, used for its astringent properties in tanning, photo taken in Acadia National Park, 2014 (Kathy Schlosser); 3) A foliose rough speckled shield lichen (Punctelia rudecta) covered with isidia (tiny projections which can detach to form new growth and grow from the white spots and streaks), photo taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC 2009 (Kathy Schlosser); 4) Umbilicaria mammulata, smooth rock tripe (Alex Graeff,  iNaturalist); 5) A crustose lichen species in Acadia National Park, 2014 (Kathy Schlosser); 6) Pixie cups lichen (Cladonia sp.) growing amongst a cushion moss (Dricanum sp.), 2011 (Kathy Schlosser); 7) Cetraria islandica, Iceland moss (Darya masalova, iNaturalist); 8) Parmotrema caperata (now P. perlatum) as it appears in Flora Batava, vol. 10, 1849 (via Wikimedia); 9) Evernia prunastri, oakmoss lichen used in perfumery (Liondelyon, via Wikimedia)

References

Adams, Ian. Shield lichens at West Woods, Geauga County. Ian Adams Photography website, March 29, 2020.     https://ianadamsphotography.com/news/shield-lichens-at-west-woods-geauga-county/  Accessed 12-04-2021.

Cetraria islandica,  Iceland moss.  https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Cetraria+islandica Accessed 12-15-2021. 

Chen, J., H-P. Blume, and L. Beyer. 2000. Weathering of rocks induced by lichen colonization: A review. CATENA. 39(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0341-8162(99)00085-5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0341816299000855   Accessed 12-19-2021.

Crawford, S. D. 2015. Lichens used in traditional medicine. Lichen Secondary Metabolites, chapter 2. Springer International Publishing.  DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-13374-4_2   Accessed  12-28-2021 

Daniel, G., and N. Polanin. 2013. Tree-dwelling lichens. Rutgers, N.J. Agricultural Experiment Station. https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs1205/  Accessed 1-1-2022. 

Fink, B. 1906. Lichens: Their economic role. The Plant World. 9(11). Published by Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America. Stable URL: 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/43476359   Accessed 11-18-2021. 

Graeff, Alex.  Smooth Rock Tripe, Umbilicaria mammulata.  Photo 70633379, iNaturalists, (some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND).  https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/70633379  Accessed 12-29-2021.

Grujičić, D., I. Stošić, M. Kosanić, T. Stanojković, B. Ranković, and O. Milošević-Djordjević. 2014. Evaluation of in vitro antioxidant, antimicrobial, genotoxic and anticancer activities of lichen Cetraria islandica. Cytotechnology. 66(5): 803-813.

Kops, Jan.  Flora Batava of Afbeelding en Beschrijving van Nederlandsche Gewassen, (1849).  Parmelia caperata, illus. Christiaan Seep,  Vol. X, Amsterdam, Deel.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parmelia_caperata_%E2%80%94_Flora_Batava_%E2%80%94_Volume_v10.jpg   Accessed   11-09-2021.

Lichen Identification Guide, Discover Life website.  https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?guide=Lichens_USGA    Accessed 1-1-2022.

Max Planck Society.  The hidden talents of mosses and lichens.  https://phys.org/news/2021-12-hidden-talents-mosses-lichens.html 

Perez-Llano, G. A. 1944. Lichens: Their biological and economic significance. Botanical Review. 10(1).  Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4353298   Accessed 12-23-2021. 

Perez-Llano, G. S. 1948. Economic uses of lichens. Economic Botany. 2: 15-45.

Rodrigues, A., S. Gutierrez-Patricio, A. Zélia Miller, C. Saiz-Jimenez, R. Wiley, D. Nunes, M. Vilarigues, and M. F. Macedo. 2014. Fungal biodeterioration of stained-glass windows. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation. 90.    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ibiod.2014.03.007. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0964830514000663   Accessed 12-19-2021. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture, U./S. Forest Service, Lichens Glossary. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/lichens/glossary.shtml   Accessed 12-04-2021.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service.  Lichen Habitat.  https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/lichens/habitat.shtml   Accessed 12-18-2021. 

U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.  Lichens—The Little Things That Matter  https://www.nps.gov/articles/lichen-and-our-air.htm  Accessed 12-21-2021. 

Yong, E. 2016. How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology. The Atlantic, July 22, 2016.  http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/07/how-a-guy-from-a-montana-trailer-park-upturned-150-years-of-biology/491702/    Accessed October 2016. 


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the North Carolina Unit of The Herb Society of America since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level, including as a member of the Native Herb Conservation Committee, The Herb Society of America. She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen de Conway Little Medal of Honor. She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

Carob – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

Minolta DSCHave you heard of St. John’s bread or locust bean? These are all names for the carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua. This herbal tree is a native of the Mediterranean region and is also grown in East Africa, India, Australia, and California. It can grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9-11 – places with dry, Mediterranean-type climates. Carob is disease and pest resistant, tolerates dry, poor, rocky soils, and is drought tolerant due to a very deep taproot (125 feet) that enables the tree to survive in arid climates. It is in the pea family (Fabaceae), and like other members of this family it fixes nitrogen, improving the fertility of the soil in which it is planted.

Carob is a multi-stemmed, evergreen tree that can reach 50 feet high and 50 feet wide, and its broad, dark green leaves make it a good shade tree. It is mostly a dioecious tree, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The flowers grow from the old, woody bark along the branches. Only the female trees produce fruit, starting when the tree reaches 8 years of age; however, fruit for commercial production begins when the tree is 20 years old. A mature tree can produce up to a ton of fruit in one season. The fruit is a sword-shaped pod that can grow to 12 inches long. When the pod turns from green to brown, it is ground into a powder and roasted. The result is used as a substitute for cocoa powder and flour. The seeds are a bit larger than watermelon seeds and are used to make locust bean gum, a food additive that thickens and stabilizes foods like ice cream and salad dressings.

History

The carob tree has a 4,000-year history of use. Some say that the tree is a survivor from a now-extinct group of the Fabaceae family (Loullis, 2018). Because carob seeds are fairly uniform in weight, ancient jewelers used the seeds for weighing gems and gold. One carob seed was the smallest weight for a diamond, giving the name “carat” to the measurement. Egyptians used carob to bind the wrappings of mummies and used it to make beer. They also treated wounds and eye conditions with it.

There are several biblical references to the use of carob. Its name, “St. John’s bread,” refers to St. John the Baptist being sustained in the desert by eating “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4). Locusts were mistakenly (some say) thought to be carob pods (Gardner, 2012). It was nutritious and easy to digest, and so porridge was made from it and fed to the elderly.  Because there was so much available and could be easily stored, it was a significant part of the diet of poor people during biblical times. 

carob, Nevit DilmenCarob pods discovered in the storehouses of Pompeii show that the Romans were harvesting the tree as early as 79AD. The Romans ate the carob seeds for their sweetness. The Greeks used carob pods as fodder for their pigs and food for their people.

In 1854, the U.S. Patent Office imported 8,000 carob trees from Spain and sent most of them to California. A profitable crop was not able to be produced from the trees so they were used for landscaping instead. In a prescient statement in 1914, Santa Barbara Agricultural Commissioner, C.W. Beers, commented that “The day may come when the deserts will be extensive forests of carob trees” (Kauffman, 2018).

The carob tree has been a source of nutrition during times of war and famine when supply chains of basic ingredients were interrupted. It was a lifesaver for many during the Spanish Civil War. It was the “chocolate of occupation” during WWII and was used as a substitute for flour and coffee. It has been considered to be the food of the poor, and was food for domestic animals. At one time, singers chewed the pods believing that it cleared the throat and voice.

Current Uses

Even today, carob has an amazing number of uses—from medicines, food for humans and animals, photographic film emulsions, adhesives, paints, inks, and polishes, and even cosmetics. Its wood is prized by wood craftsmen and also makes good charcoal. Italians use the seeds for rosary beads. The nutrients in carob have made it a health food staple, as it is high in fiber and natural sugars and is also a low-fat, no caffeine substitute for chocolate. Medicinally it’s used as both an anti-diarrheal and a mild laxative.

Recent research shows that carob powder is a rich source of the antidiabetic compound D-pinitol, a type of sugar. D-pinitol can decrease blood sugar levels and prevent obesity by suppressing the increase in human adipose tissue. In addition, the polyphenols in carob fiber have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation in some cancers (Loullis, 2018).

My favorite story about carob comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

One day, Honi the Wise Man was walking along the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man answered, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi replied, ‘And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?’ The man answered, ‘Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees (Vamosh, n.d.).

Carob is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. More information about the tree along with recipes and a beautiful screensaver can be found at https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Carob tree (Pedro Servera); 2) Male carob flowers (Erin Holden); 3) Female carob flowers (Rick J Pelleg); 4) Carob seed pods (Nevitt Dilman); 5) Carob candy (Relivate)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments. 

References

Carob. (2010). In Leung’s Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients: Used in food, drugs, and cosmetics by Ikhlas A. Khan and Ehab A. Abourashed. 3rd ed. Hoboken: Wiley. (Online through Ebsco)

Carob-the black gold of history. (n.d). Accessed 9/28/21. https://cretacarob.com/en/blog/news/to-charoypi-o-mayros-chrysos-tis-istorias/

Gardner, Jo Ann. (2012). The everlasting carob. The Herbarist. Issue 78, 2012. 

Kauffman, Jonathan. (January 31, 2018). How carob traumatized a generation. The New Yorker. Accessed 9/28/22. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/how-carob-traumatized-a-generation

Loullis, Andreas, Eftychia Pinakoulaki. (2018). Carob as cacao substitute: a review on composition, health benefits and food applications. European Food Research and Technology. Springer. Accessed 9/27/21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-017-3018-8

Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg. (n.d.) Food at the time of the Bible. Israel, Palphot Ltd. 

Vamosh, Mirium Feinberg, (n.d.) Carob trees, the Bible, and righteous gentiles. Accessed 9/28/22. https://miriamfeinbergvamosh.com/carob-trees-the-bible-and-righteous-gentiles/

What is carob? (n.d.) Carobana Confectionary. Accessed 9/20/21. https://carobana.com.au/carob.html


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’sTexas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

An Herbal Obscurity

By Chrissy Moore

If you asked me about my favorite herbs, you’d likely be surprised by my response. I tend to gravitate toward more obscure plants and topics in the herb world. My most recent herbal revelation is no exception.

Train journal and cotton wasteOne of my friends is a complete and total railroad aficionado. I love these kinds of people because they often have gems of obscure information at the ready for anyone willing to listen, and as a naturally inquisitive person myself, I am almost always a willing listener. Recently, this friend–I’ll call him James–was explaining to me the wheel systems on trains, pre-21st century. (I told you it was obscure, but I love it!). Midway through his explanation, he said, “And they packed the journal [part of the wheel system] with cotton waste, and…”

“Wait, what? What did you say? Cotton what?”

“Cotton waste. They’d soak it in oil, pack it under the journal, and the lubrication would help reduce friction between the journal and the wheel bearing.”

“What the heck is cotton waste?” (Clearly I was distracted from the main point of the conversation.)

“You know, scraps of cotton fabric or fiber or whatever.”

Recycled cotton waste“Where did they get it? Did they just tear up old shirts or something? That’s a lot of old shirts for all the trains in the country!”

James cocked his head in response with a quizzical look on his face. I don’t think anyone had ever prodded him about this particular topic before. Leave it to me. Hah!

If you’re not involved in the textile industry in some way, as I am not, you may not be familiar with the term “cotton waste.” James’s wife, who is very familiar with cotton waste, she being a seamstress, intervened in the conversation and explained it to me. Essentially, it is the leftover scraps of fiber or fabric from clothes manufacturing or the like. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of it hanging around.

Gossypium hirsutum 'Mississipi Brown'I was so excited to learn about this use of cotton–as obscure as it may be to most of us–because cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is one of my favorite herbs! The fibers are used in so many applications, it’s hard to recount them all: from clothing (the obvious) to cotton swabs/balls to movie film cellulose (now a thing of the past); from cling film to its use in the food industry (cottonseed)… these are just a few examples. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades. And here was yet another use for this amazing plant: the inner workings of a train. Who knew?! James did, of course.

Because my interest was piqued–as any herbal nerd’s would be–I decided to dig a little deeper into cotton waste’s uses. The waste can be environmentally dodgy and potentially dangerous, since it’s basicallyRecycled cotton waste into housing insulation flammable material laying about (a whole other topic). But as it turns out, there are various companies and non-profit organizations that collect the waste–either the fabric or fiber–and recycle it into things like new garments, furniture, or housing insulation. (You gotta admire people’s ingenuity.) According to one insulation manufacturer, their insulation is fire-retardant, mold/mildew resistant, has no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and has excellent noise-dampening qualities. While I cannot speak to the veracity of those claims, the mere idea that cotton fiber can be used in a different format, yet again, is a perfect example of what it means for a plant to be “herbal.”

Whether used for culinary purposes, for fragrance or medicine, or in this case, industrially, plants that give and give and give again rank high on my personal list. My thanks go out to James (and the many enthusiasts like him) for inadvertently introducing me to a new use for this hard-working herb. Next time someone asks me about my favorite plants, I now have a great herbal obscurity at the ready to share with any willing listeners!

Photo credits: 1) Train journal with cotton waste packing (Steve Smith, Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum); 2) Cotton waste (Artistic Fabric & Garment Industries); 3) ‘Mississippi Brown’ cotton boll, Gossypium hirsutum ‘Mississippi Brown’ (author’s photo); 4) Recycled cotton waste housing insulation (Bonded Logic).


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Pitch Pine- Tar and Pitch for Shipbuilding

By Cipperly Good

2015.5.1

Roll of oakum. Image courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum Collection, PMM2015.5.1

The riches that the British, French, and Dutch explorers found in Maine came not from gold, but in the form of fish and lumber.  Having depleted those resources in Europe by the 1700s, they sent work parties and eventually colonists to extract these materials vital for feeding and shipping goods back to the motherland.   One highly prized resource was Pinus rigida (pitch pine), which provided the tar that preserved the watercraft.  Tar prevented rot in the ship timbers and standing rigging (ropes holding up the masts, yards, and booms).  It sealed the cracks between deck and hull planks from rain coming down and seas washing over them.

When a donor gifted the Penobscot Marine Museum with a roll of tarred oakum, the evocative sweet smell transported me back to tall ship voyages and the attendant memories of fresh sea air, sun, and the mix of peace and adrenaline of sailing.  Oakum is the tarred strands of picked apart rope, wedged into gaps in the planking and sealed with a seam of pine tar to prevent deck and hull leaks. 

Bill of lading

Bill of Lading from the ship ISAAC CARVER. Image courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum Collection, PMM32-575

To extract the pine tar, shipbuilders put pitch pine logs into a kiln, where the lack of oxygen and high heat inside resulted in tar and charcoal.  The oozing tar was collected.  If the tar was boiled, it became pitch, which when spread on hulls hardened into a watertight seal.  Pitch pine could also be tapped, with the resulting “sap”, when distilled, becoming turpentine.

Like the Europeans before them, Maine depleted its stores of pitch pine, despite conservation measures to prohibit the cutting of trees under 12 inches in diameter.  The industry moved to the southeastern US, especially to the Carolinas where longleaf pine  (Pinus palustris) was the tar tree of choice.  Mainers stayed in the market by transporting tar in Maine-built ships to markets throughout the world.


Cipperly is curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine.