TURPENTINE (Pinus, Larix, Pistacia spp. – Coniferae, Anacardiaceae)

Turpentine is a thin, volatile, essential oil, which is distilled from the resin of certain pine and other trees. It is used familiarly as a paint thinner and solvent, but it is also valuable medicinally. There are various qualities of medicinal turpentine: the most highly regarded, for instance, is called Venice turpentine, and is produced by the European larch (Larix decidua, Coniferae). The European maritime or cluster pine (Pinus pinaster, Coniferae) is a more frequent source, but the oil, Bordeaux turpentine, is less subtle. The tree that yields what is known as Indian turpentine, is the terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus, Anacardiaceae), of a family which includes the pistachio nut (P. vera), and P. lentiscus (a tree which produces mastic for chewing gum). These trees grow around the Mediterranean. Another tree from New Zealand, the kauri or Agathis australis, also produces oil and turpentine.

The properties of turpentine were known to the Greeks and Romans, Dioscorides saying the best was the white, clear variety. Pliny, Hippocrates and Galen favoured its properties, too. Venice turpentine was known during the Middle Ages, and the city became one of the principal markets for this medicinal drug. In the sixteenth century, methods of obtaining resin and distillation were recorded.


Description: The resin runs naturally from the trees, but generally they are tapped, and then the resin is steam distilled to produce the oil. (Some turpentine-producing trees are sprayed with dilute sulphuric acid which causes the resin to exude.) The resin is yellow and fluid, translucent, slightly fluorescent, and does not harden when exposed to air. It has an agreeable smell and an acrid bitter taste.

The principal constituents: Borneol, resinic acid, sesquiterpene, terpenes (pinene, a and ~) together with neutral substances.

Dangers: Turpentine should never be stored in a dropper bottle as the rubber will disintegrate.
It is very often used to falsify other essential oils – eucalyptus, juniper, pine and rosemary, for instance, all of which are high in terpenes, the principal constituent of turpentine. Turpentine can also be adulterated, usually with white spirit or petroleum solvent (what is sold as turps substitute), and if this is used as an essential oil, it can cause terrible burns. As with all other essential oils, it is vital to be sure of the purity of turpentine.

Turpentine oil must never be taken internally. Turpentine is a strong antiseptic and bactericide, but should only be used by a reputable practitioner. It must never be used neat, as even a small dosage can excite the nervous system; large doses can cause paralysis, exhaustion, cystitis, bladder infections and the need to pass water all the time. Turpentine oil should never be left where children or people who might be careless can abuse it.


In illness
Despite the above, I use the oil in the practice, finding it good in cases of rheumatism, sciatica and gout.

Other uses
Another source of turpentine is the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), the resin of which is also used in the Greek wine retsina.

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