The first time I met Cistus oil was many years ago. I used it a few times in some experimental perfume blends and was impressed with its depth, richness and intriguing complexity. After that I put the vial away and forgot about it; when I opened the drawer many years later and took out the oil its fragrance was as full and intense as when I had last smelled it.
I met this oil again recently on the island of Corsica. The distillers there carried it in their collections, but told me it was coming from Spain. I noticed distinct differences between the oils they had, even though they were distilled from the same species from the same country. I brought back several samples, and the one I chose for the Floracopeia collection was not only my favorite, but the favorite of Sara and everyone at the company as well.
Corsica was also where I met the plant for the first time. Its common name “rockrose” includes the species Cistus ladanifera that is distilled for its oil and other botanical relatives that grow prolifically all over the island, forming the aromatic landscape of the “marquis.” I learned that the local species are beloved by bees but not by distillers, who say that no significant amount of essential oil can be coaxed out of them.
My first encounter with Cistus ladanifera was on a short tour of an aromatic plant garden. Because our guide spoke no English, it was impossible to know what was done with it, and I left under the assumption that it was the flowers only that were distilled. My second encounter was with the owner of another distillery who spoke fluent English, and from him I learned that it was actually the resin from the plant that is distilled. As we walked through rows of the hardy herbaceous shrub on his farm, he encouraged me to grab a handful of it, to demonstrate how it was literally oozing an intensely fragrant gum.
Many people on Corsica are now cultivating Cistus ladanifera for distillation, because the ecological conditions on the island produce superior aromatic results. In Spain, however, there are areas where the plant has aggressively taken over the landscape, as the other species of rockrose have in the Corsican marquis. They love the hot dry climate and thrive in rough soil from sea level to the higher elevations.
The oil itself is one of the most famous and important ingredients in perfumes and incenses. As such, it has a long history, dating back as far as ancient Egypt. The fragrance is deep and intense, and can be overpowering and very tenacious if not softened in dilution or blends; some people like it that way. It is described in perfumer’s language as having warm, sweet, resinous, woody, animalic and ambergris notes.
Cistus is an oil that I have relatively little knowledge or experience with. For that reason, I asked an expert perfumer I met recently to offer some insights for this post. JK DeLapp, who offers online courses on natural perfumery and making natural aromatic products, provided these interesting comments about its spiritual dimensions, therapeutic reputation and some blending possibilities:
“Cistus brings to the forefront an awareness of our Spirit, allowing us to tap into our connection with the universal pulse of existence. Emotionally, it was used to encourage visions and dreams, and is a great pacifying herb—making it an excellent addition to your meditative practices.
“It is a great ingredient in skin formulations, which pairs nicely with helichrysm to pacify wrinkles and premature aging.
JK, who is a wealth of information about the history of perfumery, added this intriguing bit of information:
“In the past, people used to send goats through the foliage, and the sticky gum would adhere to the goat’s coat. The pieces of gum would then be cut out of their hair, and so a goaty-animalic note would accompany the fragrance. Today, it is considered very lucky to come across a batch that was harvested by goat, as the additional animalic fragrance is highly valued as both a fixative and as a valuable pheromonal component, adding a barnyard-note that can’t be duplicated.”