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Anti-Wrinkle Creams and Rock Candy

Number 14 - November 2006

Katerina Grigoriadou Ph.D.

Mastic collection 

Mastic collection in Chios, the 'Mastic island'. 

By collaborating with several local organisations,
BBGK are successfully protecting plants that
provide income for thousands of families. 

Back to Cultivate 14 


The Balkan Botanic Garden of Kroussia (BBGK), a relatively new botanic garden in Greece, has based its priorities on meeting the 16 Targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), to be achieved by the year 2010.

One major priority of the BBGK is to support, promote and contribute to the integrated conservation and management of medicinal and aromatic plants and other major socio-economically valuable native Greek species. This constitutes a contribution to Targets 3, 6, 9, 11 and 12 of the GSPC.

Towards this target, BBGK suggested and succeed to join not only botanic gardens, research institutes (Greek universities and national research institutes) but also private companies in applied research programs, financed by different sources. The aim of these projects was to use biodiversity to improve human well-being through:

  • conservation, collecting and preservation of native plant species (with special interest in aromatic/medicinal plants of Greece.)
  • maintenance of these species in accessible collections (ex situ, cultivated mother plants and genebank material)
  • research on the sustainable use of these species
  • re-introduction in the region of origin as cultivation, aiming to the increase of local income especially in poor areas  

Pilot projects have been followed for two greek native species the Origanum dictamnus and the Pistacia lentiscus var. chia. They are both endemic in Greece originated from a greek island, they belong to the category of aromatic/medicinal plants with exceptional properties, with difficulties in reproduction and they play an important role in the local economy.

Running Out of Time - An Anti-Wrinkle Supply in Decline


Origanum dictamnus (Labiateae) or 'Dittany of Crete' is an aromatic, perennial chasmophyte, endemic to Crete island.

The dittany of Crete is widely used for food flavouring and medicinal purposes, in addition to it featuring as an ornamental plant in gardens.

It’s classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plant Species 1997. Cretan dittany is also listed as “vulnerable” in The Red Data Book of Rare and Threatened Plants of Greece, and as “strictly protected” in the Revised Appendix 1 of the Bern Convention in 1990.

The plant is widespread throughout the island, though it is rarer towards the east. Records from outside Crete refer only to cultivated plants or casuals. It grows in calcareous stony soils and it has a wide altitude range, from sea level to 1900 m. It’s very difficult to grow outside of the island because of its sensitivity to low temperature.

 Dittany of Crete

 More information on this threatened plant at
, the source of this image

O. dictamus is known to have antimicrobial and antioxidant action. Recently it has been exploited in the cosmetics’ industry for anti-ageing, anti wrinkle products and other products related to oily skin or hair. The plant is also widely sold in Crete in the dried state for herbal teas. The increasing demand may pose a threat to wild populations, as many local people collect and sell dry plant material of Origanum dictamnus, although cultivated plants may be the main or the sole source.

A Protocol for Protection 

BBGK has collected 22 different accession no. of Origanum dictamnus from the place of origin. These plants belong to 5 main groups (based mainly on the area of collection). Research conducted on them has given:

  • protocols for vegetative propagation by cuttings
  • protocols of in vitro propagation
  • stock plant material in the nursery of BBGK for every accession no.
  • collaboration with the University of Thessaloniki for the evaluation of every biotype, mainly regarding the kind and quantity of the essential oils

BBGK managed to gather together:

  • the Laboratory of Conservation and Evaluation of Native and Floricultural species of National Agricultural Research Foundation of Greece (NAGREF)
  • the Greek government (with the General Secretary of Research and Development)
  • two private companies:
    • Vitro Hellas S.A. -  produces plant propagation material
    • Korres Natural Products S.A. - produces natural cosmetics
  • farmers of aromatic plants of the island of Crete

with the aim of protecting wild populations and ensuring market demand was fully met by cultivated plants.

Transfer of Know-how 

BBGK transferred the know-how of vegetative propagation (cuttings or in vitro) and the mother plants to Vitro Hellas S.A. nurseries for the mass propagation of the selected plant material.  Plants produced en masse at Vitro Hellas were passed on to the Laboratory of Conservation and Evaluation of Native and Floricultural species of NAGREF, where trial field cultivations of Origanum dictamnus were tested.

The dry plant material produced at NAGREF was then given to Korres Natural Products S.A. who are now going to:

  • extract the essential oils from the dry material
  • specify the essential substances
  • use these substances for production of natural cosmetics
  • make contracts with farmers from the place of origin (mountainous areas of  Crete) for the production of dry plant material.

The aim of this project is the establishment of pilot cultivations from the farmers of Crete through contracts with private companies which will take their product (the dry material of the aromatic plants) for use in the natural cosmetics industry.

Thus, it is hoped the re-introduction of Origanum dictamnus in Crete will be achieved and the wild population will be protected from uncontrollable collection.

The Wounded Tree

Tears of the Wounded Tree

 Tradition has it that God blessed the mastic
tree which began to "cry" in 250 A.D., when
St. Isidoros cried out in pain
during his martyrdom.

Pistacia lentiscus (Anacardiaceae) is an evergreen perennial shrub typical of the Mediterranean maquis from where the world famous product “masticha” (mastic) is produced. The cultivation of the mastic has been known since ancient times and it has been strongly tied to the island's history. The importance of this unique product has repeatedly made the island a target for various conquerors.

Now however, the tree is weeping for a new reason. There are not enough trees to meet demand for mastic, and the local economy is largely dependent on this tree for income.

Masticha is an exclusively Greek product protected by the European Union as it is not produced in any other part of the world except Greece.  The product is a significant source of agricultural income for the island of Chios. 

More specifically, it is produced only in the southern-east part of the island of Chios in the 24 villages and communities known as "Mastichochoria" (literally "the mastic villages"). The conditions suitable for mastic production are due to a unique combination of the genotype of the plant and the special soil and climatic conditions of this region (hot, dry climate with volcanic soil). Almost 5.000 families in the southern Chios earn a significant portion of their incomes by cultivating the mastic tree. Most of the product (almost 90%) is exported, mainly to the Arabic countries.

An Ancient Tradition

Mastic has pharmaceutical applications

 Masticha of Chios, is a highly valued
product due to its cosmetic,
pharmaceutical and industrial
applications. It is proven that mastic
has therapeutic uses to lower
cholesterol, prevent ulcers and ease
blood pressure.

Masticha is also used
for greek traditional sweeties, drinks,
baked goods, chewing gum, cosmetics
such as toothpaste, lotions for the hair
and skin and perfumes.

More about Mastic

Masticha is still produced using traditional, manual methods by the local people. During summer the soil under the trees is cleaned and covered by a thin layer of special clean lime soil. The farmers chip the bark of the mastic tree with a kind of traditional knife and masticha drops like tears to the soil. After it is collected, it is spread out to dry and it is washed manually. The final product is like rock candy and has a distinctive aroma, taste and chewiness.

Chewing on a Sticky Problem 

The would-be propagator of mastic trees faces many difficulties, because sexual propagation by seeds leads to strong variability among genotypes, while asexual propagation by cuttings is not effective due to very poor root induction.

Furthermore there are difficulties in finding adequate plant propagation material, as there are limited mother plants in Chios and the geographic area for locating possible initiation material is very restricted.

A Collaborative Solution 

So BBGK together with the Prefecture of Chios have implemented a program involving:

    • the collection of the genotypes of Pistacia lentiscus var. chia from the place of origin (24 villages of Chios)
    • the identification of the collected plants
    • research on in vitro multiplication
    • research on in vivo multiplication by cuttings
    • reproduction of mother plants
    • re-introduction of the new plant material at local nurseries
    • production of new elite propagation material for the farmers

BBGK has thus far collected 3 different cultivated selections of the mastic tree. Research is now being conducted into the identification of this plant material using molecular methods, with the aim of determining the possible differences between P. lentiscus originating from other Mediterranean areas and these selections from Chios island.

Research is also focused on:

  • on asexual propagation by cuttings of the 3 genotypes
  • determination of the differences in rooting induction between them  
  • the possibility of in vitro propagation

The goals of the project are:

  • the renewal of cultivated plant material on the island of Chios of this unique species
  • improved quality in the final product for industry (local delicacies, cosmetics, pharmaceutical use)
  • extending the use of this unique product
  • increase of the income of the poor areas of the 24 villages of Chios

Models for the Future 

The mastic tree - many are dependent on it for income

 It is hoped that by developing and sharing new
propagation techniques, BBGK can help the mastic tree
and improve the well-being of the people of Chios.

In realizing projects like these,  BBGK hopes to achieve its main target: the conservation, study and promotion of the Greek & Balkan Flora towards the challenge of 2010.

For more information on this and other projects in the Balkans, please contact:

National Agricultural Research Foundation (N.AG.RE.F.)
Laboratory of Conservation and Evaluation of Native and Floricultural species Balkan Botanic Garden of Kroussia
P.C. 570 01 Thermi, Thessaloniki, P.O. Box 60 125, Greece, e-mail:


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