Cistus Ladanifer - The plant
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 probably behind 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)