The rockrose (Cistus Ladanifer) is a flowering plant from the family of the Cistaceae. This sticky shrub grows up to 2,5 meters and can be found all over the western Mediterranean region. It is very common in Portugal, especially in the south (Alentejo and Algarve) where patches of rockrose communities cover large areas of the countryside. In the Algarve in particular, there is a subspecies of Cistus ladanifer called sulcatus, which can be found very near the coast, being much smaller and with the leaves closer to the ground; the flowers of Cistus Ladanifer Sulcatus are usually without dots.
Here on the Portuguese Southwest, the Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus Globulus), Wild Lavender (Lavandula Stoechas), Cistus Ladanifer and many other plants form a flora that gives our region a very special scent. There are many names in Portugal for the Cistus Ladanifer plant but it is mostly known by its common name:Esteva.
Cistus Ladanifer plants can adapt to poor soils and don’t need much water. The maquis shrubland of the western Algarve is composed of many species, amongst which the Cistus. Older cistus plants can grow quite tall and together with other plants such as the strawberry tree (arbutus unedo) and the cork oak (quercus suber), they provide a protective landscape that covers many hills. In these, indigenous animals can thrive, as for example the wild boar, the Egyptian mongoose, many birds and even very small populations of the Iberian Lynx.
There are many wildfires in Portugal and Cistus Ladanifer is one of the first species to emerge after the fires. The seeds of the plant are contained in a lignified round pod with several compartments (usually between 7 and 10). These compartments are probablybehind the origin of its name, as the Greek word kístē means: box. The Cistus plant is an angiosperm; this word also is Greek in origin and is used to classify all plants that produce seeds in a pod. Each Cistus pod can hold between approximately 300 and 1000 seeds; in the summertime, these pods open and the seeds disperse, thus initiating a new generation of Cistus Ladanifer plants.
Cistus Ladanifer flowers in springtime (between May and June) and that is perhaps the best time to visit the Algarve. In that time of the year the rural landscape is littered with lots of white dots and is very nice too look at. The rockrose is used as an ornamental plant (although predominantly in countries where it is not native) and its flower may be one of the reason for this, as it is one of the most beautiful flowers to be found.
Blooming only for a short time, the Cistus Ladanifer flowers are very delicate. They are of a bright white color and exhibit 5 brown/red dots, one on each of the petals. In the center of the flower are the stamen and pistil, respectively the male and female sex organ of the flower, which in the case of Cistus Ladanifer are both in yellow color. Being a country with a long Christian/catholic tradition, it is no wonder that popular culture has associated the dots on the Cistus flower with the 5 wounds of Jesus Christ.
Last but certainly not least, a few words about the leaves: these are of a dark green colour, lanceolated (meaning: in the form of the head of a spear) and opposing. Cistus Ladanifer has leafs all year long; these leafs produce a resin which is very sticky. The resin of Cistus Ladanifer protects the plant against its natural enemies and the plant produces more resin in the summer. It is this resin, which also covers many of the smaller, upper branches, which makes Cistus Ladanifer so interesting for us humans. (Read about the harvest in the next article)
Like with many other plants, Cistus Ladanifer/Rock Rose should be harvested in the morning. This helps to ensure that the biochemical constituents of the leaves and small branches keep their properties. The ideal time is anywhere between when the dew from the previous night has evaporated and when it is getting to hot to work.
Our cistus harvest starts early in the morning with a short drive to a field in the rural outskirts of Aljezur. The tools needed to harvest Cistus Ladanifer are quite simple: a sickle and a pair of gloves. With one hand we hold the aerial parts (leaves and twigs) and with the other we do the cutting. Due to the resin in the plant, after a short time the gloves turn black and the sickle starts accumulating a black gum. This is natural Labdanum and it has a wonderful scent. Labdanum collected this way is free of any chemicals.
The Cistus Ladanifer shrubs we harvest are usually relatively short (between 40 cm and 1 meter in height) and the younger the plants, the shorter they are. But, the younger plants (2-3 years) also produce more fresh leaves and resin. It is thus preferable to harvest the younger plants. This means that harvesting involves a lot of back bending! Add to this the summer heat, rough terrain and insects (bees, wasps and gadflies) and you will realize that harvesting Cistus Ladanifer is hard work…
And the problem with Cistus Ladanifer essential oil is, that in order to produce a single liter of it, one needs between 1000 and 2000 Kilo of fresh plant material, depending on the time of year. The yield for steam distilling Cistus Ladanifer Essential oil is very low, around 0,1%. Also, due to the nature of the terrain and the characteristics of the plant, a mechanized harvest is not possible. Producing Cistus Ladanifer Essential oil is thus very work intensive and this explains the high prices for Cistus Oil.
Even though Cistus Ladanifer is very far from being an endangered species, we do our harvesting in a sustainable way. In addition to rotating the fields in which we collect Rock Rose, we also never harvest all leafs&twigs from the plant. This way, Cistus shrubs keep enough leafs to survive and regrow within a few years.
If you should ever harvest Cistus Ladanifer on your own, there is one important safety advice to give: due to the deadly wildfires in 2017, the Portuguese government has increased its efforts in promoting and controlling a proper management of the forests and rural areas; many land owners have been compliant and have cleaned their lands. And lots of these lands are (or were) covered with Cistus Ladanifer. One of the most common way to cut Cistus shrubs is using Brush Cutters. But this method often leaves the root intact and in the ground; and sticking out of it are the sharp remains of the Cistustrunk; always use shoes with a thick and resistant sole or there is a serious risk of injuring your foot.
Our cistus herbs are made of leafs of the Cistus Ladanifer plant, which are hand harvested, dried, cut and filtered. In some countries the eastern cousin of Ladanifer – namely Cistus Incanus – is already well-known and used as an herbal tea. We are slowly re-discovering the potential of our own Cistus, which seems very promising indeed.
A survey conducted in the southwestern region of the Algarve in 2006, gathered extensive information on the traditional use of native plants for medicinal uses. Cistus Ladanifer – or rockrose – has been historically used for a number of applications, either in the form of tea, poultice, inhaled or ingested.(1)
There are plenty of studies on the very interesting properties of Cistus Ladanifer products, such as the essential oil for example, but the scientific data on Cistus Herbs is quite rare. However, there is a study published in the Phytochemical Analysis Journal which compared aqueous (water based) extracts of several cistus species, amongst which was also a sample of Cistus Ladanifer. One of the parameters under study where Ellagitannins. Quoting the authors:
“Ellagitannins are the largest group of tannins and possess antioxidant, antitumor, antiatherosclerotic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-hepatotoxic and antiviral activities”. (2)
Regarding the results of the analysis that were made, Cistus Populifolius, for example, has a concentration of 7.86 mg/mL; Cistus Ladanifer scores very high, with 15.12 mg of Ellagitannins per mL . Curiously, Cistus Incanus scored 0 mg/mL.
We ourselves carried out comparisons between a sample of our Ladanifer herbs with a sample of Incanus herbs for 4 different polyphenol parameters, namely gallic acid equivalent, tannic acid equivalent, catechine equivalent and epicatechine equivalent. This test of the Cistus Ladanifer and Cistus Incanus samples was carried out by an independent food labratory in Italy using the method of spectrophotometry. The results for the four polyphenol parameters are almost identical in both Ladanifer and Incanus. The results for Cistus Ladanifer herbs were:
Polyphenols calculated as gallic acid equivalent: 10.5 g/100 g
Polyphenols calculated as tannic acid equivalent: 11.3 g/100 g
Polyphenols calculated as catechine equivalent: 8.2 g/100 g
Polyphenols calculated as epicatechine equivalent: 6.3 g/100 g
The reason why we wanted to know more about the polyphenol content of Cistus Ladanifer has to do with the fact that polyphenols are very interesting and have been in the focus of many studies regarding health benefits. These polyphenols – or phenolic compounds -have been studied for almost two decades due to their interesting properties:
“Phenolic compounds in foods have attracted great interest since the 1990s due to growing evidence of their beneficial effect on human health. The interest was stimulated mainly by epidemiological studies indicating an inverse association between the intake of foods rich in these compounds and the incidence of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, and cancer.” (3)
Polyphenols are defined as a “structural class of mainly natural, but also synthetic or semisynthetic, organic chemicals characterized by the presence of large multiples of phenol structural units. (…)Examples include tannic acid and ellagitannin.” (4)
Tannins, for example, are a subset of the polyphenols . “The astringency from the tannins is what causes the dry and puckery feeling in the mouth following the consumption of unripened fruit or red wine or tea.” (5)
“Plants produce ellagic acid from hydrolysis of tannins such as ellagitannin.” (6)
And ellagic acid, has proven antiproliferative and antioxidant properties. “As with other polyphenol antioxidants, ellagic acid has a chemoprotective effect in cellular models by reducing oxidative stress.” (7)
Cistus herbs are thus another product of the Cistus Ladanifer plant which seems very promising. We will continue investigating the potential of Cistus herbs and share the findings with you.
Feedback from individual costumers regarding the effects of Cistus Ladanifer herbs can be found under: Testimonials.
(1) “Recolha dos ‘saber-fazer’ tradicionais das plantas aromáticas e medicinais – Concelhos de Aljezur, Lagos e Vila do Bispo”; Associação de produtores florestais do sudoeste algarvio; Bordeira, (2006)
(2) “A Systematic Study of the Polyphenolic Composition of Aqueous Extracts Deriving from Several Cistus Genus Species:Evolutionary Relationship” Barrajón-Catalán, Fernández-Arroyo,and others. (2010)
(3) “Bioavailability of the Polyphenols: Status and Controversies”; Massimo D’Archivio and others. (2010)
(4) (5) Wikipedia
(6) “Plant Secondary Metabolism”; David S. Seigler (1998)
Cistus essential oil is one of the most interesting and valuable products that can be obtained from the Cistus Ladanifer plant. There are several methods to obtain this oil but all the producers in Portugal that we know get their Cistus essential oil by using steam distillation; to be more precise, this process uses the fresh plants and twigs of Cistus Ladanifer. This distinction is important, as Cistus Ladanifer resins obtained through other methods (for examle, chemical solvents) can also be steam distilled to produce oils.
As mentioned in the article on harvesting Cistus Ladanifer, the yield of this plant is very low and to obtain 1 liter of essential oil through steam distillation, anywhere between 1000 and 2000 Kilogram of fresh plant material have to be harvested and distilled. The stills used may vary in size, shape and materials used (copper or stainless steel) but the principle of steam distillation is basically always the same:
Using a source of energy (usually firewood) water is heated in a boiler until its hot enough to produce steam. The steam is then released into a separate part of the still that holds the plant material. The steam opens the plant cells, releasing the aromatic components contained in the plant; in the case of Cistus Ladanifer, its the leafs and twigs which are used. Tiny amounts of essential oil are transported by the steam particles and now enter the third step in steam distillation: condensation. The steam – now containing essential oil – is transferred into a condenser; usually this is a spiral shaped tube which is surrounded by a coolant (usually water). The steam enters the condensor as a vapor and exits it as a liquid. In the last stage, a device called essencier (also known as essential oil separator or florentine vase) is used to collect the liquid exiting the condenser. At 20 degrees Celsius, water has a density of very close to 1; Cistus Ladanifer Essential oil has a density of about 0.95. The differenc e in density may appear to be minimal, but it is this difference that makes the essential oil float on top of the water. The essencier uses this principle and this allows distillers to separate essential oil from water. With very few exceptions, almost all essential oils have a lower density than water; those oils that have a higher density will stay on the bottom (the water will float on top).
Cistus Ladanifer Oil has a clear to pale yellow color. As many other oils, it is insoluble in water . Cistus oil is soluble in ethanol and in other oils. In her book 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols Jeanne Rose (http://www.jeannerose.net) describes the scent of Cistus Ladanifer Essential oil as “Fragrant and unforgettable balsamic odor of musk and smoke”.
A typical Cistus Ladanifer essential oil from Portugal has the following composition:
α (Alpha)- Pinene: 53 %
Camphene: 14,7 %
Tricyclene: 2,7 %
β (Beta) – Pinene 0.8%
There are many more ingredients in Cistus oil but these are some of the more relevants.
Cistus Ladanifer essential oils produced in Portugal have been analyzed and compared to other essential oils (Spain and Morroco). The following quotes are retrieved form this study:
“The cistus oil herein obtained was richer in amber-like compounds and had a low content of
monoterpenes when compared to the usual values found in the literature. Moreover, it presented a relatively high content of ambrox (amber odor), which usually is only reported in labdanum oil.”
“Portuguese cistus oil herein characterized is richer in amber-like compounds and has a low content of hydrocarbon monoterpenes, which is desirable from the organoleptic point of view. (…) The fact that our oil already had low levels of monoterpenes constitutes an advantage for using the Portuguese plants for the production of good quality cistus oil.“(1)
The composition of Cistus Ladanifer essential oil contributes to its antiviral, antibacterial and antiarthritic properties. The antifungal properties of Cistus Ladanifer extracts have also been studied: “Overall, the phenolic extract of C. ladanifer affected the growth of different Candida sp[ecies], suggesting that the compounds present in the extract could play an active role in the protection against fungi related to several diseases.” (2)
With regards to antioxidant properties, portuguese scientists have compared extracts from two cistus species, cypress and Eucalyptus:
“Radical scavenging effects of phenolic and essential oils extracts of the aromatic plants Cistus ladanifer, Citrus latifolia, Cupressus lusitanica and Eucalyptus gunnii were examined and compared (…) In the essential oils extracts, the best contribution to the antioxidant activity was achieved by Cistus ladanifer.”(3)
As we’ve mentioned, Cistus Ladanifer essential oil is one of the oils that demands a lot of effort to produce and generally commands a high price. However, due to its very interesting properties, all the work that goes ito producing Cistus Oil is definetely worth it!
(1) Characterization of the Portuguese-grown Cistus ladanifer Essential Oil; Paula B. Gomes, Vera G. Mata* and A.E. Rodrigues; University of Porto, in: Journal of Essential Oil Research., Vol.17, (March/April 2005)
(2) Antifungal activity and detailed chemical characterization of Cistus ladanifer phenolic extracts; Lillian
Barros, Montserrat Due˜nas, Carlos Tiago Alves, Sónia Silva,Mariana Henriques, Celestino Santos-Buelga, Isabel C.F.R. Ferreira; Instituto Politécnico de Braganca, Universidad de Salamanca, University of Minho
(3) Contribution of Essential Oils and Phenolics to the Antioxidant Properties of Aromatic Plants;
RAFAELA GUIMARÃES, MARIA JOÃO SOUSA, ISABEL C.F.R. FERREIRA; Instituto Politécnico de Bragança
Hydrosols are a by-product of steam distillation. They are also called floral waters or hidrolats and basically consist of distilled water and small amounts of essential oil. Cistus Ladanifer Hydrosol is not any different; it is obtained by distilling the leafs and twigs of Cistus Ladanifer by steam distillaton. To be more precise, Cistus Ladanifer hydrosol can also be called a hidrolat, but not floral water, as the Cistus flowers are usually not distilled.
As described in the chapter regarding the Cistus Ladanifer essential oil, the process of steam distillation uses heat, water and plant material. The steam passes through the condenser to cool and liquify and then it flows into the essencier to separate the essential oil from the water. The water that remains after the separation from the essential oil is the hydrosol.
Hydrosols can contain more or less essential oil, depending on the type of plant used, the lenght of distillation and the distillation process itself. The hydrosol mentioned above is the regular hydrosol, which has been separated from the oil. This separation is never absolute, as any hydrosol always contains small traces of essential oil. However, one can also produce hydrosols that do not go through the separation process. Instead of using a essencier, the distiller simply collects – and filters – the liquid that is flowing our of the condenser. In this case, all the oil is left within the hydrosol, thus enriching the final product.
Another relevant factor in producing hydrosols is the ratio of plant material used. Depending on the type of hydrosol that we wish to produce, we can use more or less plant material. Some aromatherapists only want hydrosols produced on a 1:1 ratio; this means that for every 1 Liter of hydrosol 1 KG of plant material is used. Other aromatherapists may prefer hydrosols with a regular ratio of 1 KG to 4 Liters or even other ratios.
Last but not least, the distillation time is also important. The longer the process takes, the less intense the hydrosol will gradually be. With the passing of time and the passing of steam through the plant material, the aromatic compounds contained in the plant material will become less and less. It is crucial to know when to stop the distillation process so that the hydrosol will be of good quality.
Hydrosols have been gaining popularity in recent years by both aromatherapists and individual users alike. They are good alternative or complement to essential oils because they are not as concentrated as essential oils. Most hydrosols can be applied directly to the skin without the need to be diluted. Furthermore, at least in our case, we do not add any preservatives or additives to the hydrosol. For this reason, our hydrosols should always be kept in a dry and cool place and away from sunlight.
With regards to Cistus Ladanifer hydrosol in particular, we recommend that you consult your aromatherapist and/or the book by Susanne Catty “Hydrosols-The next Aromatherapy”, from which the following quotes are taken:
[Cistus Ladanifer Hydrosol is] “… Herbaceous, quite dry, and warm in both scent and flavor, it’s difficult to describe but I ilke it.”
Regarding stability and shef life, Catty mentions: “ Very stable. Generally rock rose has a long life, two years or more without problems…”