Round Robin: Sweet Scent of Cistus

Notes from regional herb gardeners

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NEWBERG, Oregon—With the summer heat, I find a walk through the herb garden and perennial borders a heady experience. The air is filled with scents and I dodge buzzing bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Old species roses and lavenders are the most recognizable scents and seem to be the most frequented by pollinators, but I have planted a few herbal surprises in among them. These are the aromatic Cistus species, or rockroses. They love the sun and are drought tolerant. I grow C. ladanifer, C. incanus, and C. ¥ purpureus (a hybrid of the first two). They are all a source of labdanum—a heavily scented resin used as a perfume fixative for soaps, deodorants and cosmetics. In the Mediterrean region, the gummy resin used to be harvested from browsing goats: the resin would stick to their beards, which the shepherds then cut off with goat-horn-handled curved knives. I can only imagine the indignity that some old billy goat must have endured until his beard grew back.

C. ladanifer, which has beautiful, single-petaled white flowers with five dark maroon blotches around a yellow center, was the first rockrose that I ever grew. The dark evergreen leaves contrast well with the flowers but become quite sticky as the plant exudes more of its gummy resin in the summer heat. (The resin reportedly has insecticidal properties as well.) When cold weather arrives, the resin turns opaque. Being evergreen, our C. ladanifer has a presence in the winter herb garden; it’s carefree and winter-hardy as long as it has good drainage. It is covered with a delicate, almost crepe paper–like bloom most of the summer although individual flowers last barely a day. C. incanus has warm rose-pink flowers that blend well with my agastache hybrids from Mexico. C. ¥ purpureus has bright magenta flowers with maroon splotches that are highlighted by the silver-leaved artemisias and the warm blues of Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and N. grandiflora.

I am surprised to see Cistus used so seldom. This group of plants qualifies in every way for the herb garden. Now that I’ve justified its inclusion, I want to collect the numerous cultivars with flowers in many more colors, even canary yellow.

While I was writing an article about nepetas, I decided to conduct an unscientific test on cats’ reactions to some of the species and cultivars. I gathered samples of everything I had and dried them for my friend Joan to try out on her seven unsuspecting cats. She left the bags on the kitchen counter by mistake, and Frankie—a huge, eighteen-pound tabby—immediately sniffed them out and jumped up to wallow in them. Joan rescued the samples and stashed them in the kitchen cupboard; another cat, Kitten, was later found pawing at the cupboard doors. When she finally began the test officially, Joan would place a new sample out each day. The biggest hit—the real rabble-rouser—was N. cataria, the true catnip, but the cats also were quite excited about N. ‘Pool Bank’. They all ate the leaves and rolled in it playfully for a long time, but it had a decidedly aggressive aftereffect on Frankie, who smacked another cat’s head. The traditional catmint, N. racemosa (formerly N. mussinii), and its cultivars received little attention. Only one of the seven cats showed interest in N. ¥ faassenii and its cultivars. The other species elicited little response except N. melissifolia and N. grandiflora, both of which caused only a minor ruckus. As for the Asian species, the cats gave a collective yawn. Maybe for once, they just wanted to sit, lick their paws, and enjoy the flowers.

Andy Van Hevelingen operates Van Hevelingen Herb Nursery in Newberg, Oregon.