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Cistus, a woody shrub of the Cistaceae family, grows in the Mediterranean basin on poor soil, especially in Spain (Cistus ladaniférus), Syria (Cistus syriacus), Crete (Cstus incarnus ssp creticus) and Cyprus (Cistus cyprius).
Its very fragrant flowers blossom from April to June. Two of its species (Cistus creticus and Cistus monspeliensis) with white and pink flowers, fill the Corsican scrub land with scent which prompted Napoleon to say that he would recognise his island eyes closed by its perfume. Attempts have been made at cultivating it but without convincing results, due to the prohibitive production costs.
Cistus has managed to surprise two great men: the father of history and the father of botany. Herodotus said "It has a very pleasant perfume even though it comes from a obtained from a foul smelling place, as it is gathered from the beard of bucks. When the animals come out from the scrub, it sticks to them like glue." Cistus secretes a gum, labdanum, term derived from the syrophoenician ladan, "glue herb". The Greeks preferred using leather strip whips for harvesting. Linnaeus was surprised by the exceptional number of species, there are more than three hundred! The ancients used cistus in fumigation and for its "astringent virtue" that stopped bleeding. They also liked its animal smell: Pliny wrote "Pure, cistus should have a wild scent and smell of the desert".
Cultivation and production
Cistus is well adapted for culture in a Mediterranean climate. Spain is the largest producer of the labdanum gum, i.e. three hundred to three hundred and fifty tonnes a year.
The perfume industry uses its powerful smell to create perfumes of the cypress or amber family.
Extraction and yield
The leafy hardwood twigs are distilled to obtain the essential oil, with a yield of 0.02%, i.e. twenty grams of essential oil per hundred kilograms of plant. If only the labdanum or gum, used as a wound healer in phytotherapy, is desired, the twigs are dipped in hot bicarbonated water.
The most remarkable components of Spanish cistus are monoterpenes (50%), diterpene alcohols, esters, acetophenones and lactones.
Thanks to its astringent, wound healing and antiseptic properties, essential oil of cistus stops haemorrhages, favours healing of any superficial skin wound and avoids secondary infection. Anti-infectious, anti-viral and anti-bacterial, it fights childhood viral infections, whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and chicken pox and in general it reduces the "tendency to catch anything that passes by".
Cistus ladaniferus pineniferum.
Excerpts from the book « Aromatherapia – Tout sur les huiles essentielles », by Isabelle Pacchioni. Aroma Thera Editions.