Rock roses are magical flowers, born for the moment. They open early in the morning and seldom last more than a few hours, dropping their petals like confetti. These handsome evergreen shrubs hold a host of buds that open daily for weeks, and their resinous leaves scent the afternoon air with a sweet aroma of honey and pine.
Ten years ago, a visit to Nichol’s Herb and Rare Plant Nursery in Albany, Oregon, first introduced me to the surprising and unusual world of Cistus, the closely related genus Halimium, and the hybrid, ¥Halimiocistus, collectively known as the rock roses. In the center of the display garden was a large, dark-green shrub covered with wonderful white flowers. Each flower had five crepe-like petals that were yellow at the base and blotched with burgundy, as if painted by a delicate hand. The petals encircled a bright yellow center with a profusion of stamens. I was so enthralled with its beauty that I immediately asked for a cutting. I was surprised when I touched the plant to take the cutting; it was so sticky that I felt like a fly caught on flypaper. The manager laughed as she handed me a napkin and said the plant was a Spanish gum rock rose (Cistus ladanifer). It is the source of a resinous gum called labdanum.
Although unknown to me, rock roses were familiar to gardeners and herbalists of the past. Herbalist John Gerard in 1597, referring to the texture of the white petals of C. albidus, described them as “lightly creased like a newly dried sheet before being ironed.” Many herbals remarked on the methods of harvesting the gum resins, which were simple yet innovative. One method was to take a large rope with attached leather strips and rake it back and forth across the leaves of the cistus to release the resins, which would adhere to the leather strips where they could be later scraped off and collected. Another popular method was to graze goats throughout the cistus fields and have the gum collect on the goat’s beard, which would then be cut off with a knife specially curved for that purpose. Once collected, the material was boiled in water to separate the resin from the beard, producing a dark-brown solid mass.
In earlier times, the resin was used medicinally for the relief of catarrh, diarrhea, and dysentery. Today, Spain is the major commercial producer of the gum, which is used mostly as a fixative or fragrance in perfumes, soaps, and toiletries. It is used most effectively with the earthy fragrances of Oriental colognes and aftershaves. The scent is said to be as close to sweet ambergris (oil from whales) as the vegetative world can offer.