The mastic tree or lentisk (scientific name: Pistacia Lentiscus var. Chia), is an evergreen shrub, 2-3 metres high that develops very slowly and becomes fully grown after 40-50 years, reaching up to the height of 5 meters at its mature age. Its life span is more than 100 years but it cannot produce mastiha earlier than the fifth or sixth year of its life. It reaches its maximum yield after the fifteenth year. After 70 years of age, its yield regresses significantly. Its average annual yield by tree is 150-180 grams of mastiha, while there are certain rare cases of trees yielding up to two kilos and others that only give 10 grams. Male trees are mostly cultivated because they are more productive. Another considerable factor in terms of yield is the distance separating each tree from its neighbor.
The lentisk is a rather resilient plant with minor demands, that is why it grows well on arid, rocky and poor soil. As its roots are spread on the soil’s surface, it can survive in conditions of absolute drought, but can be extremely sensitive to cold and frost. New cultivations are produced from old trees’ branches (grafts) and the old ones are renewed from offshoots or layers. Lentisks and similar varieties of this tree family are an essential part of maqui-type vegetation found in Mediterranean countries, but only in Chios tree and nature offer those precious mastiha “tears”. It is well justified then that Chios is actually identified with mastiha. It is also worth noticing that while there are lentisks all over the island, mastiha is only produced in the southern part of Chios, in the so-called Mastihohora or mastiha villages, where the climate is especially warm and dry. This “uniqueness” is probably due, besides a longtime tradition, to certain soil and weather conditions which favour the mastic tree’s cultivation only in Chios and only in this specific part of the isle.
Mastiha production is a family affair and requires work and attention throughout the whole year. In December, growers start to fertilize the lentisks, in order to complement the natural fertilization ensured by the dead leaves of the tree itself. Mid-January and throughout February they prune lower branches to give a specific shape to the tree and to create passages for the circulation of air and light as well as for the drying of resin. Before the tree carving process and mastiha’s gathering, the ground around the trunk needs to be free from other plants. Thus, from mid-June to the beginning of July cleaning and soil leveling take place so that any mastiha drops that may fall on the ground can be easily gathered.
The cleaning process is done in a “circular” way around the trunk (creating “tables”); then follow the sweeping of the scraped soil and its leveling, done with well riddled white soil powder, which is spread and firmly pressed on the ground to create a smooth surface. The kentos, as we call the carving of small scars on the lentisk’s bark, is the most crucial stage in mastiha production. It begins in July and goes on throughout August, while sometimes there may be more carvings up until the end of September. With the help of a small sharp iron tool with grooved ends, called kentitiri, they make small cuts on the tree’s trunk and main branches, beginning from the lowest part of the trunk and going up to the branches. The first gathering is done after the 15th of August. Mastiha starts solidifying within 15-20 days from the first carving. We first gather the larger mastiha chunks, the co-called pites. The rest is gathered with the help of “brooms” or by hand. Mastiha is then put into wooden boxes and stored in cool places where it shall be diligently cleaned in order to be finally delivered to the cooperative. Then, Chios Mastiha Growers Association that assembles the total production within a six-month period of time, processes the product, packages it and manages the international trade of different types of mastiha according to its size (pita, large or small chunks), and of mastiha products such as ELMA chewing gum, mastiha oil, mastiha oil water and mastiha powder.
It is worth mentioning that mastiha production process has remained practically unchanged by time, something that unbreakably connects it to the historical tradition of Southern Chios.