Plant Talk with Cistus Essential Oil

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Welcome to the land of Cistus ladaniferus, a place to learn from the short, sticky, resilient shrub that graces hot and arid locations such as Spain and Portugal. Known since ancient times, Cistus invites you to a space of healing and contemplation. Also known as Rock Rose, this plant has a lot more to share than its ephemeral flowers. Are you curious what Cistus oil smells like? Read on to find out…

Close-up of a Cistus flower.

Cistus Symbolizes Ruggedness and Rejuvenation

Cistus thrives in the aridly rugged terrain of the Mediterranean Sea basin. Part of its survival strategy is producing a sticky resin to protect itself. For example, the sticky resin helps cellular water from evaporating into the arid air, similar to us applying an occlusive oil to prevent trans-epidermal water loss. These beings of the Cistaceae family bloom in the warmer months, populating swaths of land with their 5-petalled white, pink or purplish flowers which each last one day. Of note, the seeds of Cistus can withstand wildfires where Cistus may be some of the first plants to come into a landscape after a wildfire to protect and rejuvenate the land.

Harvesting Cistus for Oil and Hydrosol

Through personal correspondence with David Jacob, a master harvester and distiller based in Aljezur, Portugal, I learned that Cistus is often harvested for its essential oil in June or July when the sun is in its yearly apex. However, Cistus may be distilled to obtain a beautiful hydrosol in any of the warmer months as long as the sun is shining. He also noted how the flowers, which bloom in April and May, are “of minimal consequence” regarding Cistus’ oleoresin production; though they provide a beautiful sight along the countryside where they grace the rocky landscape.

Extraction Matters: Cistus, Labdanum or Both?

Let’s get into names. The essential oil is known as “Cistus” though other common names are “Rock Rose” and “Labdanum.” There is a fine line here: the complete essential oil is obtained by distilling the leaves and small twigs of the plant while Labdanum is the actual resinous exudate produced by the cistus plant. Labdanum is often obtained by boiling the chopped leaves and branches of Cistus where the crude gum resin floats to the top and is skimmed off to then harden and used as-is or is further subjected to solvent extraction. Cistus’ Latin epithet gives insight as to how special Labdanum was and is: ladaniferus = labdanum (ladan) bearing (fero).  

A Sacred Botanical for Sacred Incense

Ancient Cistus, the “rock rose,” is often cited as the “onycha” referenced in the bible (Morris, 1984). Though this remains to be proven 100% as there is much conflict about what “onycha” actually was to our ancient relatives. Its sticky resin was prized and cited as a core ingredient of the sacred incense which included other resins such as Frankincense, Myrrh and Galbanum. Resins lend themselves to incense use as they are readily flammable and aromatic.

Incense sends messages up to the skies

Impressions of Cistus Essential Oil

Obtaining Cistus Essential Oil

Cistus essential oil is distilled from the dried leaves and twigs of the small, tenacious evergreen shrub of Cistus ladaniferus. Native to the rugged eastern coastal regions of the Mediterranean basin, it is distilled for its hydrosol and essential oil in Spain, Morocco, France, Portugal, and Crete with the bulk of oil production coming from Spain. From what I’ve gathered along the years, it seems that the essential oil yield from Cistus leaves and twigs is around 1-2%.

Overall Signature of Cistus Essential Oil

Cistus, a tenacious resin-bearing plant, lays ground for an essential oil with amazing staying power giving it “fixative” qualities sought by perfumers. Resins are often from tenacious plants. They are balsamic and cooling for the plant that creates them, mitigating the scorching sun and arid air. Cistus gets things done, gently. Like the scarred land it may flourish in after a fire it may help us tap into our ancient scars and process lingering gunk—be this reparative skin work, stuck emotions and even ancestral scars. Historically it was used as a disinfectant; it clears the way for new beginnings. It unearths dreams, hopes and wishes, it’s initial tenacity and soft powdery dry down harmoniously support tending to the raw, the hidden, the scarred.

Physical Impressions of Cistus Essential Oil

A drop on a scent strip, cotton round or tissue is all it takes to meet an essential oil. The following “physical and personality” impressions are from multiple sittings.

The body immediately pulls the head, the mind, down into the body. Directly to the diaphragm, soon easing down to the navel. Your life force (navel) is linked to the breath, the two are one. Sharp edges of the mind are softened by Cistus and its affinity for clearing the lungs. Breath elongates the body, felt into the far reaches of the limbs that have been neglected by the mind.

Cistus continues on, saying: “I am patience, waiting for you.” The oil encourages deep knowing by giving this gift, this space—deep knowing starting through the diaphragm then touching your navel, the connection to eternity and life on Earth. Cistus is calming, regulating, softening those sharp edges. Breath fills and deflates without labor. It fills you up, with a sense of timeless courage, courage through knowing, not bravado. Time is slower. The molecular plant make-up working with human chemistry sets the stage for prayer, contemplation, ceremony: where time stands still. This is sacred time. There is no urgency; healing does not rush. Cistus, if you let it, invites you to engage with the tender work at-hand.

Cistus conjures deeply saturated interiors of red, orange, burgundy and decades old wood paneling that has drank generations of ancient incense. Its aromatic song creates a sense of comfort, softness, carving a space to release, let go, to tend to the wounds.

Aromatic Personality of Cistus Essential Oil

This oil is like no other, not reminiscent of any other oil. The first encounter is fresh, crisp, clearing, intense, resinous, and earthy along with the word that embodies it: tenacious. An initial sickly sweet, resinous cousin of moldering Valerian root greets you upon opening the bottle or applying to a perfume blotter. A cloying sweetness prevails with wafts of terpenic gasoline riding alongside a warm peachy glow that unveils an animalic, honeyed tone. The feeling is somber, quieting, centering and comforting yet sexy. The dry down, which takes its time, unfolds into a subtle peach glow, warm-dry sunsets in the Mediterranean. Twenty-four hours later and you’re left with a deeply subtle, sensual bouquet of a dry-dirt-floral mixed with ambrette seed; warm honey merges with musk and powdery amber. It is a chamber-sanctum made of stone, lined with wood, perfumed through 100s of years of scented prayers from those seeking of healing, love and connection. Heaven on Earth.

Application notes: With its many trace components, Cistus seems mysterious and is quite complex. This includes its odor profile and dry-down. The terpenic quality dissipates after the dry-down, leaving softer, sweeter notes behind. Keep this in-mind when applying to the skin (diluted, of course): the aroma drastically changes within a matter of minutes. This is indicative how Cistus helps you become you, integrating with your chemistry, opening the door to work with wounds and stuff hidden in the psyche.

A meditative setting with candles.

Affinities and Usage Applications for Cistus Essential Oil

Cistus has an affinity for skin care, notably wound care and more specifically working with blood. As essential oils work with our emotions and neuro-endocrine system, there is an affinity to work with deep, emotional wounds. Like most essential oils, Cistus is a wonderful anti-microbial ally.

Following are notable therapeutic actions and indications for Cistus essential oil:

  • Skin: Its antimicrobial, astringent, hemostatic, styptic and cicatrizing qualities lend it to aiding in general skin care (acne, maturing and couperose skin), general wound care (cuts) and skin ailments related to blood (e.g., bloody nose), swelling such as rectal fissures and hemorrhoids and a venous tonic.
  • Respiratory: Catarrh in the lungs due to its astringent, drying qualities; overall supportive of deep breathing.
  • Immune: Supports healthy immunity (tonic and stimulant), wound disinfecting.
  • Nervous: Soothing, neuro-tonic and regulating of the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Emotions: Energizing, clarifying yet balancing. Its affinity for the parasympathetic nerves helps with insomnia and agitation. Indicated to ground and fortify the soul.

Blending with Cistus Essential Oil

Consider blending Cistus essential oils with the following essential oils, notably for addressing physical and emotional scars and wounds: Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), Rosemary ct. verbenone (Salvia Rosmarinus ct verbenone), Carrot seed (Daucus carota), Frankincense (Boswellia sacra), Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Rose (Rosa X damascena), Neroli (Citrus aurantium subsp. amara), Lavandin (Lavandula X intermedia) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Notes on Cistus Essential Oil Chemistry and Safety

Cistus essential oil has an incredibly complex chemistry comprised of several trace components; many seasoned aromatherapists believe these trace components are where the synergistic magic is at play. Although Cistus is rich in α-pinene (upwards of 50%), the complex symphony of trace components is not to be discounted. For instance, I checked a GCMS report that listed 33 components coming in at less than 1% each. To be liberal, let’s think of this as “micro dosing” or homeopathic dosing by the plant when it creates these components in such trace but necessary amounts.

Regarding safety, Cistus essential oil may oxidize over time due to its high monoterpene content, specifically α-pinene and other supporting mono and sesquiterpenes. Oxidized oils may cause skin sensitization. Follow general best practices to avoid oxidation such as replacing the oil every two to three years and protecting it from heat and light. Speaking of those trace components, Cistus oil often has several of the dissolving, potentially neuro and liver toxic ketones in small amounts. Summed up, these ketones may comprise 3 to 4% of the oil (or more–it all depends on the plants life). As with any oil: set your intention with prudence as your guide to determine application, dilution and dosage.

Supporting Wellness with Cistus Essential Oil

Essential Oil Blend for Supporting Higher Consciousness and Spirituality

The “invisible” sense of smell has linked humanity with greater forces and spirituality since we can remember. This notion is well represented by the sacred use of aromatic resins such as Cistus, Frankincense, Myrrh and Galbanum—botanical materials noted in the Bible and other ancient texts. Resins are protective and healing for plants and offer us the same benefits on the physical (e.g., anti-bacterial and wound care), mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Each breath of the following blend seems to unveil a different aroma and bring forth a deeply calming state.

Suggested Method of Application: Magic happens when these oils are applied to the skin; the aromas drastically change and seem to merge into each other. Try adding this blend to a roller ball applicator using your base oil of choice (e.g., jojoba or sunflower) and applying it along your jawline and pulse points before meditation, praying or embarking upon any situation that calls for openness and contemplation.

  • 3 drops Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus)
  • 10 drops Frankincense (Boswellia sacra)
  • 3-5 drops Sandalwood (Santalum album or S. spicata)
  • 2-4 drops Myrrh (Commiphora molmol)
  • 1 drop Galbanum (Ferula galbaniflua)  

Soothing Eye Gel

Treat your eyes to the cooling benefits of aloe and hydrosols combined with the healing properties of beautiful fixed and essential oils. Below is a modified version of a gel I’ve loved making for clients over the years. It is smooth, penetrates nicely and everyone loves the feeling and aroma of it.

Essential Oils

  • 1 drop Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus)
  • 1 drop Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • 2 drops Juniper (Juniperus communis)
  • 3 drops Carrot seed (Daucus carota)
  • 5 drops Rose (Rosa X damascena)
  • 5 drops Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum)

Base Ingredients

  • 20 ml Aloe jelly
  • 6 ml of a delicate seed oil such as Chia or Pomegranate
  • 1.5 ml Rose (Rosa X damascena) hydrosol
  • 1.5 ml Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus) hydrosol
  • 0.5 ml Vitamin E oil

How to Make:

  • Drop the essential oils into the blending bowl and swish to combine
  • Measure out each base ingredient and add to the mixing container
  • Whip the ingredients together for about 60 seconds using the hand mixer
  • Dispense the final aromatic gel into a 1-ounce glass jar using a spatula
  • Label the bottle with the ingredients and date

Hydrosol Highlight: Wound Care Spray

Hydrosols—the unsung heroes of aromatherapy—are so versatile. I’ve incorporated them into skin care products like the aforementioned eye gel, cream bases, mouth rinses and more. Cistus hydrosol is a must for me to have on-hand for beauty care and wound care seeing how it is an excellent ally for cleaning cuts and help stop bleeding.

I recently cut myself pretty badly with sharp pruning shears. The first thing I did was apply pressure with a cotton pad soaked with alcohol followed by a compress of fresh yarrow leaves applied for 30 minutes. Then, I took cistus and yarrow hydrosols out of the fridge and proceed to spray the wound then soak a cotton pad with both hydrosols to then hold the pad to the wound. Each morning and evening I apply a drop of Cistus oil to the wound along with ointment, then apply a bandage. This will be done for 3-5 days.

Make your own “wound care spray” to help clean scrapes and cuts. Following is a lovely blend of hydrosols. Bonus? It also makes a lovely facial toner.

Base Ingredients

  • 15 ml Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus) hydrosol*
  • 7.5 ml Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) hydrosol
  • 7.5 ml Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) hydrosol  
  • *Note: You may choose to only use Cistus, which is totally fine!

Additional Supplies Needed:

  • 2-ounce glass bottle with a spray top
  • Measuring cups or beakers
  • Label

How to Make:

  • Measure out the hydrosols in a beaker or graduated cylinder
  • Transfer the hydrosols to the 2-ounce glass bottle and affix the spray top
  • Label the bottle with the ingredients and date
  • Note: Keep in the fridge (or out of extreme heat) and use within 1 year

Thank you for spending time with Cistus and me.

Works Cited

Morris, E. (1984). Fragrance The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. Mineola: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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