One of my favorite garden flowers has never done well for me. Cistus ladanifer or just plain cistus, is a white flowering shrub that comes from the rocky dry countryside of Portugal and southern Spain. The land of arid scrub and brilliant skyscapes most easily spotted in El Greco paintings and spaghetti or (paella?) westerns such as Cat Ballou and Viva Maria. It is a land of jamon and mysticism, in about equal parts, and I have never gotten any closer to it than Malaga – which is not at all the same thing, and I really want to go some time.
Cistus though, is starred white by it s blossoms, each flower marked with a maroon blotch at the base of the petals, which gives it an exotic look. I am a sucker for the color combination, that along with the wiry leaves, gives it a delicate appearance. But, I‘ve never succeeded with it in a border. The one time I tried, it died, having decided that clay was impossible, even though I had dug in a good deal of grit and lime, and it had plenty of sun.
The cistus was undeceived. It knew that this was not its native habitat or any decent facsimile thereof, and surviving under those conditions was a fool’s game. RIP one cistus plant.
The point here is that cistus has been used in the perfume world for a very long time. It’s the leaves that produce a proprietary resin, very sticky and hard to wash off as I recall it, but very fragrant. Cistus used to be a fixative of fine fragrance and is more commonly known as labdanum. You could find it in the dry downs of Chanel’s Antaeus, and Monsieur Carven, Eau Sauvage, and Oscar de la Renta’s Pour Lui.
The house of Molinard seemed to enjoy employing cistus in the codas of female perfumes, something other perfume houses avoided or else to left to their deepest darkest oriental perfumes, things like Muelhens Amun, or Lagerfeld’s KL. Molinards, by contrast, often feature it. Cistus was in Habanita and also Molinard de Molinard, making them both smell imposing, and maybe a bit richer, darker, and more nuanced than your average female scent.
Cistus used to be obtained by combing the undersides of goats, that is if they’d been off noshing the hillsides of dry rocky places such as Crete where cistus grows wild. You collected the sticky drying resin and then you sold it, and the point of this whole goat combing exercise, was the smell. It was similar to ambergris, (arguably a substance more precious than gold, even if it was merely whale upchuck not to be coy about it). Even back in the day, people had to make substitutions in fragrances. If you couldn’t find or afford one ingredient, you used something else. Cistus fell into that category.
Myself though, I just like the flowers, and I wonder, now that I live in Jersey, whether or not I couldn’t coax one into growing on a pebbly little slope next to an Artemesia or something? It would look great and it would keep on flowering during a dry spell. But I think maybe the goats are not on the agenda. After all I find it hard enough to comb the cat….