The Melody of Pine Resin
A botanical rarity extends south of Vienna, from the Wienerwald as far as Rax and Schneeberg: the largest and most northerly forest of Austrian black pine in Europe. It conceals more than one secret – and trees with faces!
Pine resin, Copyright: Ernst Schagl
The Austrian black pine has formed a unique forest along the edge of the Alps. Pinus nigra austriaca, which survived the Ice Age, is far less sensitive to cold weather than its more southerly relatives, roots in the poorest soil, withstands long periods of drought and generally survives in conditions that no other tree tolerates. Living up to 800 years, it covers the slopes of limestone Alps as light, high branched woodland, or clings, small and weather beaten, to cliffs and mountain ridges.
In summer a delightful scent enfolds you in these forests, fresh and resinous, as the pines which are especially rich in resin, start to "sweat". Clear drops gather on their trunks, essential oils vaporise and spice the air. The Ancient Romans used it as both an adhesive and shaving balm and the Celts collected resin here - some 2,000 years ago.
1,800 years later - shortly before Empress Maria Theresia had transplanted a stock of black pine from the mountains to the plains of the Viennese basin as a windbreak and a source of resin - Pech, as the Austrians call pine resin, became the region's gold. Waterproof and adhesive, it was the raw material for a huge range of products: dye, varnish, lubricants, shoe polish and paper were manufactured as well as face cream and medicaments; it could even be found in chewing gum. But around 50 years ago a rival for this natural resource came along - resin was almost entirely replaced by mineral oil as a raw material.
Nowadays, resin is only collected in the months of May to November in the forests between Baden and Neunkirchen, barely an hour's drive from Vienna. Eight resin collectors harvest the resin of the Austrian black pine here- for the love of ancient ways and handicrafts and in one case to fulfil a promise to a grandfather to keep up the tradition; and they have a market for their haul, a resin distiller in the region.
According to the traditional method, they remove a little bark and carefully scrape the trunk back to sapwood. The resin, the balsam of the tree, begins to flow. Two wooden runners are hammered into the trunk left and right, which guide the resin to the Pechhäferl, a collecting cup which fits into a groove in the trunk. When the runners and the cup are taken away, three cuts remain in the wood, looking like two eyes and a mouth. You feel as if many trees are looking you in the face, silent witnesses to the heyday of resin harvesting.
At Hernstein resin works, itself a rarity, the pine resin is distilled into turpentine and rosin. Natural cosmetics, medicaments, essential oils and incense are manufactured on site. In Vienna, Petz Kolophonium export their refined violin rosin - made to a secret recipe since 1912 - worldwide, mainly to Japan, China and England. When stroked along the hairs of a violin bow, the rosin gives the instrument its haunting resonance.