If I were to name the top 3 most tantalizing and exotic-smelling aromatics in the world, Labanum would surely be on that list. The mystique of this rich, sweet, animalic, top-shelf aromatic botanical has cast its spell over various cultures for ages. From its integral role in ancient incense blends and renowned perfume formulas to its enduring presence in contemporary fragrances, Labdanum possesses an unmistakable ability to captivate the human heart.

If you’ve ever encountered the entrancing scent of Labdanum resin intertwining its intoxicating spell through the air, then you know how precious this aromatic essence truly is. But where does Labdanum come from? Labdanum is one of the handful of botanical resins used in the aromatic arts that are derived from a shrub instead of a tree. 

It's possible you didn't realize it at first – but chances are you've encountered the stunning Labdanum resin-producing Rockrose plant (Cistus ladanifer (Western Mediterranean) and Cistus creticus), either for sale at your local plant nursery or flourishing quietly in neighboring gardens. Many people have used this plant as a common landscaping shrub, unaware of its rich origins and diverse uses, dating back to Ancient Rome and Egypt.

Labdanum, with its animalic allure and enigmatic aroma, emerges as a rare aromatic gem – commonly known as “The Champion of Perfume.” This precious substance is highly prized and an important addition to both the perfumery and incense realms, and is traditionally used in Eastern medicine systems in many ways, both topically and internally. Beyond its botanical beauty, Labdanum and Rockrose are a symbol of resilience and wonder, thriving in the most arid of landscapes with minimal water, its ornamental flowers a testament to nature's enduring grace.

Let’s unravel the secrets and splendor of Labdanum, diving into its rich history and folklore, botanical characteristics, and traditional uses in the aromatic arts and medicine.

Botany & Native Habitat

Labdanum (Cistus) comes from a hardy, dense evergreen shrub named Rockrose. You may also hear this plant commonly called Cistus due to its Latin name, Cistus ladanifer. The term “Cistus” originates from the Greek word “kistos,” which was the original name used to refer to this plant in ancient Greece, and “ladanifer” translates to “bearing of Labdanum.” Belonging to the Cistaceae family, this plant thrives in dry, rocky, and often nutrient-poor soils, displaying remarkable adaptability to harsh environmental conditions. 

Rockrose is a popular choice for gardeners due to its hardiness and breathtaking beauty. Considered a drought-tolerant perennial plant, Rockrose has the potential to reach heights of 4-5 feet and spread just as wide, featuring dark green leaves with a grayish hue on their undersides, emitting a fragrant aroma during the high heat of summer. 

This plant’s beautiful, mesmerizing flowers bloom from late spring to early summer, bearing five fragile white petals that feel like crepe paper, with purple or maroon raindrops at the center, framing orange stamens and pistils. However, it’s not the flowers that offer us this plant’s mysteriously exotic aroma. 

Originating from Spain, Portugal, and northwest Africa, Rockrose has been widely cultivated across the Mediterranean region for centuries due to its fragrant resin, known as Labdanum, utilized in perfumery as a base note and fixative in fragrances. Rockrose can now be found growing throughout Morocco, Greece, Cypress, Corsica, Crete, Spain, Portugal, France, and Yugoslavia. 

In Spanish, Rockrose is known as “Jara pringosa,” which translates to “sticky shrub.” This name is a nod to the luxuriously aromatic Labdanum resin that coats the leaves and stems of Rockrose. Both the resin and essential oils are commonly used in the aromatic arts, for incense, perfumery, and traditional medicine uses.

History & Folklore

Labdanum is thought to be one of the oldest aromatic materials used by the ancients. 
As described by Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, the resin was first harvested from Rockrose by Arabian shepherds who – by chance – guided their goats into thickets of the shrub. 

Legend has it that Arabian goat herders discovered Labdanum resin by accident. Enticed by the plants, the goats grazed on them, leaving the resin on their beards.  Consumed by a thirst for more of this divine essence, the shepherds continued this practice and would then use combs to collect the resin that had clung to the goats' beards and coats.

In the ancient lands of Egypt, Labdanum held divine reverence, believed to be born from the “Tears of Osiris” that descended from the celestial realms onto the Cistus bush, birthing this sacred aromatic resin. They worshiped the goats that brought them this divine substance. According to Egyptian scholar Percy E. Newberry, pharaohs adorned themselves with fake beards made of goat furs drenched in Labdanum, a symbol of their connection to the heavenly world.

Over time, the Ancient Greeks built rake-like tools known as “ladanisterions” from wood and long strands of leather to be gently swept through the shrubs to collect the resin, and then it would be dried and solidified for storage or trade. In ancient times, the harvesting of Labdanum resin was a time-consuming, labor of love, requiring skilled laborers to carefully gather the sticky substance without damaging the plant. 

These days, most modern harvesting practices of Labdanum resin involve cutting down the plant and collecting the resin after boiling both the stems and leaves in hot water, as the resin floats on top of the water. The end result is Labdanum resin, which can be used in incense and topical aromatic herbal preparations.  

Some resin moves on to be further refined to create an absolute – similar to essential oil but made by solvent extraction. Its aroma is a symphony of opulence, resonating with deep, resinous sweetness underscored by hints of Ambergris and woody notes. You can also find Cistus essential oil, which is steam distilled from the leaves and twigs of the Rockrose plant. Much lighter smelling from Labdanum resin and absolute, Cistus oil offers a more vibrant essence with fruity-balsamic overtones. 

No matter which way you use it, Labdanum adds layers of depth and resonance to any aromatic preparation. Remarkably potent, it finds its way into fragrance formulations across diverse perfume genres. Labdanum is one of the core ingredients in the foundational Chypre perfume accord, crafted in 1917 by François Coty, a French perfumer who named his famous fragrance family after the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Aromatic Arts

In Ancient Greece, Labdanum was considered an important ingredient in perfume, and was used in both incense and beauty products in Ancient Egypt. Dioscorides, the ancient Greek physician, said that it was commonly used as an ingredient in “Royal Unguent.” An unguent is a topical semi-solid substance used for medicinal or cosmetic purposes, similar to ointments or balms. In ancient times, unguents were widely used for various purposes, including moisturizing the skin, soothing irritations, treating wounds, and perfumes or cosmetics. 

Labdanum was one of the key ingredients used in Kyphi, an ancient Egyptian incense blend burned in religious ceremonies and rituals as an offering to the gods and for its perceived spiritual and medicinal properties. It is also one of the main ingredients used in the Ketoret, an incense blend offering described in the Hebrew Bible. It was believed to create a pleasing aroma to symbolize prayers rising to heaven. When burned, it releases a deep, earthy, luxurious fragrant smoke thought to have purifying and spiritual properties. 

Labdanum has been a highly prized ingredient in ancient perfumery due to its rich, resinous aroma. It’s commonly used as a base note in perfumes, providing depth, warmth, and fixative properties to fragrance compositions. Labdanum resin is often blended with other aromatic resins such as Myrrh and Frankincense, and various floral essences to create complex and luxurious perfumes.

Labdanum is often called “Vegetable Ambergris” due to its strikingly similar fragrance profile to genuine Ambergris – a substance formed in the digestive tracts of sperm whales and expelled into the ocean, coveted by many perfumers. Authentic Ambergris can be challenging for perfumers to find. Moreover, certain perfumer artisans opt for producing perfumes free of animal ingredients. Many natural perfumers like to use Labdanum since it mimics the scent of Ambergris with a complex aroma of amber, leather, and woody undertones.

Traditional Medicinal Uses

Labdanum boasts a rich history of medicinal use spanning millennia. Renowned for its potent antiviral and antibacterial properties, it has been traditionally used to support the immune system. Historically, it was often used for viral infections such as measles and chickenpox, as well as various other viral ailments like colds, flu, coughs, bronchitis, and whooping cough, particularly in children. More recently, it has found a niche as an herbal tea remedy in alleviating symptoms associated with Lyme disease [1].

Topically, Labdanum has been commonly used for many different types of skincare, including first-aid use for cuts, skin damage, and scar healing. Its anti-arthritic properties extend its utility to topical pain relief, offering relief from conditions like arthritis. It’s also cherished in the use of beauty products for soothing acne and anti-aging effects, coupled with its exotic aroma. Recent research suggests the rich content of flavonoids and anti-inflammatory properties of Labdanum help soothe the skin after sun exposure and boost skin health [2].

Labdanum can also help balance the nervous system as both an incense and an herbal tea, helping to ease stress, anxiety, and insomnia, as well as uplift the spirit. It’s traditionally used as an herbal tea nightcap in Greece to support relaxation at the end of a long day.

Cistus Rockrose, Labdanum Resin, & Beyond

With its origins tracing back to Ancient Rome and Egypt, this resilient shrub has captivated humanity for centuries, as an enchanting plant and fragrant resin offering many magnificent gifts. Labdanum's journey through history intertwines with tales of ancient harvesting methods, perfumery practices, and incense traditions – all thanks to a serendipitous discovery sparked by the appetite of some very famished goats! 

Labdanum is the heartbeat and backbone of the perfumery world, an indispensable essence that adds depth and transcendence to any blend. From its use as a key ingredient in perfumes and incense in Ancient Greece to its modern-day applications in skincare and aromatherapy, Labdanum continues to leave an enduring mark on the aromatic arts. If you have yet to meet this precious aromatic, once you have the opportunity to encounter Labdanum, the Champion of Perfume, whether in its resin form or its source, the Rockrose plant itself, the memory will linger with you indefinitely.


Want to experience the beauty of Labdanum resin?


Our sister company, Higher Mind Incense, now offers exquisite Labdanum resin sustainably grown & harvested from the Spanish Mediterranean coast.


Latin Name: Cistus ladanifer, Cistus creticus
Other Common Names: Rockrose, Cistus, Gum Rockrose, Labdanum Cistus
Genus: Cistus
Plant Family: Cistaceae
Parts Used: resin, leaves, and stems
Body Systems Affiliations: respiratory system, nervous system, immune system, integumentary system (skin)
Herbal Energetics and Actions: anti-arthritic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, astringent, emmenagogue, expectorant 
Aroma: musky, woody, spicy, smoky, herbaceous, balsamic, slightly sweet

Article Written By Melissa Szaro

References

1. Rauwald, H.W., Liebold, T., Grötzinger, K., Lehmann, J., & Kuchta, K. (2019). Labdanum and Labdanes of Cistus creticus and C. ladanifer: Anti-Borrelia activity and its phytochemical profiling. Phytomedicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31474477/

2. Frazão, D.F., Martins-Gomes, C., Steck, J.L., Keller, J., Delgado, F., Gonçalves, J.C., Bunzel, M., Pintado, C.M.B.S., Díaz, T.S., & Silva, A.M. (2022). Labdanum Resin from Cistus ladanifer L.: A Natural and Sustainable Ingredient for Skin Care Cosmetics with Relevant Cosmeceutical Bioactivities. Plants (Basel). 2022 May 31;11(11):1477. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9183103/

© 2024 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.

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