It’s that smell of the Algarve we all know and love. The sweet, woody scent of the Rock Rose or Esteva bushes hangs over the hot countryside like a thick blanket from April onwards, reaching it’s heady heights around mid-summer.
Next time you pass by a Cistus plant, take a closer look. Have a feel, too. If it’s the classic Rock Rose, or Gum Cistus (Cistus ladanifer), its leaves will be sticky, and there will be pools of gum where the leaf joins the stem. This gooey nectar, called labdanum, gives the plant its delicious perfume and an array of medicinal properties.
This article intends to help you identify the different plants in the Cistus genus, and explores the history, ecology and medicinal uses of these beautiful plants that are so characteristic of the Algarvian landscape.
Cistus in history
The scientific name cistus comes from the ancient greek kiste meaning basket, or cesto in Portuguese – referring to the fruits of the plant which are encapsulated in box-like compartments.
Traditionally, the gum was collected by goat-herders for the perfume industry, as the goats’ hair became loaded with the sticky resin as they foraged between the shrubs.
Supposedly shepherds noticed that working with the resin helped small cuts on their hands heal more quickly. The essential oil, produced by steam distillation from the leaves, is still one of the best healing agents for scarring, wrinkles and general skin problems.
The ecology of Cistus
It is hard to imagine the Portuguese countryside without this plant – it has taken over huge swathes of land, due mainly to its incredible resistance to drought and fire.
The sticky resin helps the leaves retain water yet is highly flammable, fuelling the summer fires that rage through the region. The fires then serve to soften the hard seed coatings, stimulating the plants into growth.
The shrub also has a symbiotic relationship with a special root fungi that helps it flourish in arid areas by increasing its ability to take up water and nutrients, giving it even more of an advantage over neighbouring species.
Cistus as medicine
As well as the skin healing properties of Cistus, we know it is an excellent antiseptic, antibacterial and antiviral medicine, both externally and internally.
The oil can be used topically for insect bites & to clean and disinfect wounds, and the dried leaves can be taken as a tea for colds, coughs, flu and tick fever. Some even say that the tea is a good preventative against tick bites, as it makes the blood less tasty!
The shrub is also thought to have a calming and stress-relieving effect, making it a great massage oil. To make the oil, just pack a jar full of the leaves, cover with olive oil and leave in the sun – after just 3-4 days it will start smelling wonderful!
While the main species in terms of perfumery and herbal medicine is Cistus ladanifer, characterized by its large white flowers and the deep burgundy spots on each petal, other plants in the genus are just as beautiful and similarly useful.
Cistus albidus – Grey-leaved cistus
The more common of the pink-flowered Cistus species, this plant is characterised by is greyish looking leaves covered with soft hairs. Called Roselha in Portuguese, it is found at low altitude along the coastline and in inland areas.
Cistus salvifolius – Sage-leaved cistus
Characterised by its leaves, which look very similar to the well-known culinary herb sage, its flowers usually occur in clusters and the species grows in a wide range of habitats.
Cistus monspeliensis – Narrow-leaved cistus
Often confused with sage-leaved cistus, it is much less common and can be identified through its narrow, sticky leaves.
This plant is very similar to Gum Cistus, but always has unspotted white flowers. It is a shorter shrub than Gum Cistus but this may be because it only grows in the Sagres area, which is subject to very strong winds most of the year.
A final word on Cistus
This iconic plant is all the more fascinating for its symbolism of both sturdiness and fragility – the petals peel off at the slightest touch and the flowering heads last for just one day.
The beauty of the Cistus landscape is equally juxtaposed by the frightening reality that so much land is now dominated by the plant, and with each year that passes more land is burnt and laid vulnerable to colonisation by Cistus, threatening the overall biodiversity of the Algarve.
One good thing that comes of this is that there is no need to feel guilty for picking the flowers! I urge you to go and pick a few branches of Cistus – along with some wild lavender, curry plant and eucalyptus – and pop them in a vase…. your house will smell divine for days!