Cyprus Turpentine

Pistacia terebinthus, also known as the Cyprus Turpentine, is a small tree up to 6m tall or can be found in shrub-form, from the family of the Anacardiáceas, of the genus Pistacia, native to the western Mediterranean and extending from the Canary Islands, Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula to Greece and western Turkey.

It prefers relatively humid areas, up to 600 m in height. It endures the Mediterranean summer drought and frosts more intense than the mastic. It is a common plant in garrigue and maquis (The maquis and the garrigue are two types of floristic landscape that appeared after the progressive destruction of the ancient Mediterranean and coniferous forests). It appears in deciduous and oak forests.

It is a species of phanerogam pertaining to the Anacardiaceae family. It is a dioecious tree, that is, there are males and females. For a population to be viable, it must have examples of both genders. Leaves are alternate, compound, imparipinnate, with 3 or 9 leaflets of intense green colour; about 10 cm or more in length and have a semicoriaceous texture. The flowers range from purple to green, their fruit is the size of a pea and turns from red to brown, depending on how ripe they are. The whole plant emits a strong bitter, resinous or medicated odour. In the vegetative period, “gills” in the form of a goat horn are produced in the leaves and leaflets after insects bite them.

Despite being tarred by the presence of gills, it is a very vigorous and resistant tree that lasts in degraded areas where other species have been eliminated. The Pistacia terebinthus is a plant related to Pistacia lentiscus, with which it hybridises frequently in contact areas. The Cornicabra is more abundant in the mountains and in the interior and the Mastic is usually found more frequently in areas where the Mediterranean influence of the sea prevents or moderates frost. The Mastic tree does not reach the arboreal size of the Cornicabra.

John Chadwick believes that the Cornicabra is the plant called ki-ta-no that appears on some tablets of the Linear B script, an ancient Mycenaean dialect of Greek. He cites the work of the Spanish scholar, J. L. Melena, who found “an old lexicon that showed that the Kritanians was another name for the turpentine tree (terebinth) and that the Mycenaean pronunciation could represent another variant of the word.” The common name in Spanish of Cornicabra is due to the fact that the plant often has long-pointed gills, which resemble the horn of goats. These gills are caused by an aphid, specific to the Cornicabra, which grows inside the gills. It is speculated that the presence of the insect stimulates the defenses of the plant making it unappetising for herbivores and thus favouring that parasitised specimens are more common in areas where grazing is more frequent.

It has a great ecological value as it is a pioneering and resistant species that fixes and enriches the soil, facilitating its colonisation by others. It is of great value for birds and other fauna of small mammals that feed on their fruits and disperse their seeds. It is an ecological indicator of well-preserved, poorly degraded or recovering areas. Where a population of Cornicabras thrives is indicative of an area with few human intrusions. Their communities are often found in isolated and remote areas. Overgrazing causes its disappearance.

The oldest and best known use of the terebinth is as a source of turpentine, a vegetable oil used as a solvent and as a chemical component. Currently, terebinth turpentine is known as Cypriot turpentine.