Labdanum (Cistus ladaniferus, Cistaceae), also known as rockrose, is a sticky shrub with lance-shaped leaves growing up to 10 feet in height.1 [Note: The shrub is also called cistus, and an essential oil by that name is derived from steam distillation of the leaves. Labdanum absolute is produced from an exudation of the resinous twigs and leaves.] The five petaled flower is white, often with purple/maroon tear-dropped shaped dots appearing at the center and yellow/orange stamens and pistils. The gum gathered from the plant is obtained from boiling the plant in water. The resulting oleoresin is a dark brown mass. Labdanum is native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It can be found in Morocco, Greece, Cypress, Corsica, Crete, Spain, Portugal, France, and Yugoslavia.1.2
The oleoresin was one of the earliest aromatic substances used by the ancients. Herodotus, who regarded labdanum as an important ingredient in perfume, noted that Arabian shepherds would comb the beards of goats after the animals had been grazing among the shrubs. On the islands of Crete and Cyprus, an instrument known as a ladanisterion resembling a double rake with leather thongs as the teeth enables the gathering of oleoresin.3 Used extensively in Egypt, labdanum was employed both in incense and cosmetics.2 In Cyprus, it may have been offered to Aphrodite. Dioscorides and Pliny note that labdanum was an ingredient in “Royal Unguent”. The gum was also used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, and catarrh, as well as to promote menstruation.1 It is also beneficial for mature skin and wrinkles. For the respiratory system, labdanum has been used to treat coughs, bronchitis, and the common cold.
The scent is rather complex and has been described as sweet, somewhat smoky, herbaceous, balsamic, leathery, honey-like, with a lingering (dryout) note of woods and ambra (referring to ambergris, a secretion from sperm whales).
The Cistaceae family is extensive and has been noted to be “a rather wild one”.4 The family has been very prolific in establishing itself after fires and heavy grazing. The plant creates an ideal environment for connecting the underground symbiotic web of mycorrhizae enhancing the health of the soil. In Corsica, small birds line their nests with a wide variety of aromatic botanicals, including the labdanum shrub, to protection from parasites.
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1Lawless J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press; 2013.
2Rhind JP. Fragrance and Wellbeing – Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London, UK: Singing Dragon; 2014.
3Vosnaki E. Labdanum: an important material (in chypres fragrances and not only). Perfume Shrine website. October 24, 2007. Accessed March 4, 2021. http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2007/10/labdanum-important-material.html.
4Labdanum absolute – clear. Eden Botanical website. Accessed March 4, 2021. https://www.edenbotanicals.com/labdanum-absolute-clear.html.