This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
The following letter has been received by the editors of the Repertoire de Pharmacie: For some months past, a good deal has been heard about a product of our island that had quite fallen into disuse, and which no one cared to gather, so much had the demand fallen off because a substitute for it had been found in Europe; I mean Chian turpentine.
As this product is destined to take a certain part in the treatment of cancer, according to some English physicians, permit me, sir, to give your readers a few interesting details, obtained on the spot, concerning the turpentine tree and its product.
The turpentine tree (Pistacia terebinthus L.) has existed in our island for many centuries, judging from the enormous dimensions of some of these trees, compared, too, with their slow rate of growth. The trunks of some measure from 4 to 5 meters in circumference, and their heights vary from 15 to 20 meters. On my own land there is an enormous tree, by far the largest on the island, the circumference of its trunk being 6 meters. Many of these great trees have been used in the construction of mills, presses, etc., on account of the hardness of their wood. It is in the vicinity of the town and in three or four neighboring villages that these trees are found. To-day, at a careful estimate, there may be 1,500 trees capable of yielding 2,000 kilos of turpentine, mixed with at least 30 per cent of foreign matter. There are no appliances for refining the product here, except the sieves through which it is passed to remove the pebbles and bits of wood which are found in it.
It is gathered from incisions made in the tree in June. Axes are used for this purpose, and the incision must be through the whole thickness of the bark. Through these outlets the turpentine falls to the foot of the tree, and mixes with the earth there. On its first appearance the turpentine is of a sirupy consistence, and is quite transparent; gradually it becomes more opaque, and of a yellowish-white color. It is at this period also that it gives off its characteristic odor most abundantly.
It is, however, not the product "turpentine" that is most esteemed by the natives, but the fruit of the tree, a kind of drupe disposed in clusters. The fruit is improved by the incisions made in the tree for the escape of the turpentine, otherwise the resin, having no other outlet, would impregnate the former, hinder its complete development, and render it useless for the purposes for which it is cultivated. One circumstance worth noting is that, as soon as the fruit commences to ripen, the flow of turpentine completely ceases. This is toward August; the fruit is then green; it is gathered, dried in the sun, bruised, and a fine yellowish-green oil is drawn from it, which is soluble in ether. This oil is used for alimentary purposes, but rarely for illumination since the introduction of petroleum. It is mostly used in making sweet cakes, and often as a substitute for butter, in all cases where the latter is employed. I use it daily myself without perceiving any difference.
I may here be permitted to correct a slight mistake that has crept into several standard botanical works. It is therein stated that the inhabitants of this country extract from the fruit of the lentisc (Pistacia lentiscus L., a well-known shrub growing on this island, from which Chian mastic is obtained), an alimentary and illuminating oil. This fruit has never been gathered for its oil within the memory of man. The lentisc has probably been thus mistaken for the turpentine tree.
For the last twenty years the gathering of turpentine has been almost abandoned, although the incisions in the trees have been regularly made, but the value was so small that proprietors did not care to collect it, and left it to run to waste. There were but a few pharmacists of Smyrna and the neighboring islands who took a small quantity for making medicinal plasters. An utterly insignificant quantity found its way into Europe. How is it then that, after so many years, it was found in Europe? The problem is easily explained--the greater part came from Venice. This is indubitable, and, lately, an English chemist, Mr. W. Martindale, in a communication to the Chemical Society of London, expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the turpentine used in the treatment of cancer. If turpentine can really somewhat relieve this disease, and if this treatment is generally accepted in Europe, I much fear you will only obtain substitutions of very inferior quality to the turpentine produced in our island.
This year the Chians have been surprised by an extensive demand for this product, from London in the first place, and secondly from Vienna, and the proprietors, although but poorly provided at the moment, sent away nearly 600 kilos Paris has not yet made any demand. Yours, etc.,