Labdanum, magical balm to the heart

The magical plants with sticky leaves and beautiful pinkish flowers keep proliferating around the area of Sises, enjoying the sunny side of its old fame, yet they remain almost untouched. Before you continue reading, please make sure you covered part 1 of the below article titled Cretan Rock Rose, the untold story as they belong together for a full coherence and understanding.

The article was originally written for and published in the issue 2017/3 of Aromatika Magazine, an online publication in Hungary to support holistic living, the practice and professional education of aromatherapy, phytotherapy, naturopathy and related subjects. My special thanks and gratitude goes to Gergely Hollódi, editor-in-chief of this beautifully constructed aromatherapy periodical for his always encouraging support. Hope you enjoy the English version in this post. The original copy of the electronic magazine in Hungarian is available for download from the website of Aromatika Magazine.

My understanding is that in early 1990s collection of the labdanum resin as a general activity of the villagers ceased to be a major job and source of income. Not blaming anyone leaving behind the demanding sweaty efforts needed to get hold of the resin. Once the goose that laid the golden egg, rock rose was abandoned by locals to try their luck for survival in the new industries and the tourism sector. Financial restrictions and an economic environment that even with the best intention cannot be called entrepreneur-friendly are not supportive in stepping out of the rusty status. Adding to this is the overregulated system that reaches out as a monster with its thousands tentacles. In the name of environmental protection that in fact protects the status quo of selected industrial interest of the pharmaceutical and cosmetics money-makers, and prevents original value to be presented by human-scale authentic entrepreneurs and their communities.

Offset fears and panic

Just in case some of you may be confused around the various names I use in this article, I thought it is time to give you a summary here again in order to clear some things out. Rock rose is the low-growing flowering shrub that belongs to the Cistaceae family. The plant’s scientific name is Cistus Incanus ssp. Creticus, and that refers to the plant found in Crete. Its beautiful pinkish flowers which start to develop in the spring are about 4-5 cm large in diameter. In the heat of summer the glandular hairs of the leaves sweat out a sticky resin which is called labdanum. In the old days, locals were said to collect the resin from the beard, coat and the hoof of their goats grazing amongst the shrubs. This may have granted them an easy access to the sticky substance.

Cretan mountain goat beards covered with sticky resin of labdanum
Cretan mountain goat beards covered with sticky resin of labdanum

The leaves of the plant have long been used to make an infusion due to its outstanding qualities on the health. They are highly rich in poliphenols that are micronutrients packed with antioxidants, much more then green tea does, for instance. The list is long to tell about all the benefits of rock rose, in short though  it is important to mention its antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. A strong tonic to the immune and nervous system, and balances the cardiovascular, digestive and hormonal system. It is often mentioned to be used in treating endometriosis. Although that has been my personal path, I did not know about Cistus creticus at the time when I needed it. Even without a personal experience on the healing effects for that, it seems to be a great choice as part of the protocol. Cistus is quite a complex plant and deserves more detailed studies if one is interested to go deeper.

On the surface, however, it is often used as a superstar on the ‘catwalk’ of the cosmetics and perfume industry, using its regenerating properties for the skin and effects on our olfactory system. Quite understandably, of course, the heavenly scent of labdanum both offers a grounding, earthy tone while helps to anchor higher notes and extends the lasting effects of the aroma in a perfume. I must admit, I am fully in love with cistus, due to my devotion to Crete as well as being an enthusiastic botanical perfume maker myself. Not a surprise after all that one of the key components of my signature natural perfume I created last year is labdanum. This fragrance carrying the name ‘Journey’ is composed by the plants and fragrances that are all around the island and part of my reinvented life. (More on the story of Journey the perfume here.)

Rock Rose, Cistus creticus
Sticky hairy leaves of Cretan Rock rose hold the scented resin of labdanum.

I may be a bit discursive in my efforts to introducing and highlighting some of the most important qualities of Rock rose. Let me just get into one more area that I consider both quite interesting and significant. As one of the Bach Flower Essences, Rock rose is used for its attributes to treat panic, stress and extreme fear. For that reason, it is one of the ingredients in the Rescue Remedy blend that is a great first-aid to anyone to benefit in many situations. No coincidence, both the fresh plant and its various extracts  – including the resin and the essential oil – can be a real support to the soul when going through critical life stages.

Methods, learning, experiences

Let’s go back to the resin of Rock rose, as it is quite a demanding and labour-intensive raw material and deserves to be acknowledged. Dimitri was telling me that labdanum in Crete is quite unique for many reasons, and exclusive to here it is still collected completely manually. As opposed to Spain for example, the Cretan way is indeed the traditional ancient  method whereby they use a special wooden tool. This device called ladanisterion might remind us to a rake, but instead of metal teeth has long leather thongs. As applied with a push-pull movement over the plants by hand, in a couple of hours the resin slowly collects, thickens and get caked on the strips. It is indeed a muscle workout, only to get to the end when a professional collector scraps off the resin from the tool. And it is literally a sweaty job as the collection of labdanum often takes place on steep rocky slopes and can only be done on hot days when the temperature ideally tends towards almost 40 degrees. On the day of my latest visit for instance, 33 Celsius was said to be not high enough for a good harvest.

Scraping off the resin from the ladanisterion tool
Scraping off the resin from the ladanisterion tool

Manpower is also not enough… today, there is only a few man left in the village who try to keep the scented tradition and honour of the trade. I could write a book about the story of Dimitri and the Cretan Rock rose with all of its challenges and outlook. I believe that we all shape our own world and create our own future. I also do my best to share this positive vision and support this with practical acts of inspiration. It is my intent to help Dimitris and his cousin Konstantinos Nyktaris, the local community and their wider area to re-gain their hopes and take their noble position on the botanical map again. Instead of being archived for black-and-white photo albums, Cistus creticus is meant to shine in full vibrant colours while its warm sticky resin is to find its way through the rigidity of the world around.

Keepers of the tradition of Cretan Rock Rose
Dimitris and Konstantinos Nyktaris, keepers of the tradition of Cretan Rock Rose

As a closing to this fairly multi-faceted theme, let me bring you some thoughts from the splendid aromatic metaphor in relation to cistus that Robbi Zeck writes in her aromatic kinesiology book: “All life experiences serve us one way or another and we call these experiences to us for a higher learning that may or may not be immediately apparent.”

Check out some more pictures on how Dimitris and his family welcoming visitors interested in Rock rose, labdanum and Cretan aromatic herbs:

Check out the labdanum website of Dimitris.

2 thoughts on “Labdanum, magical balm to the heart

  • 2nd October 2017 at 11:48 pm
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    I am in Love with Cistus (Rock Rose, Labdanum, etc)
    Thank you for your lovely articles. How can I buy your perfume, “Journey” ?

    Reply
    • 3rd October 2017 at 12:50 pm
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      Thank you for your kind feedback Alice! As well as your interest. I am out of the oil perfume at the moment, need to make a new batch. I have a couple of solids from Journey too. Will email you shorty.

      Reply

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