Thursday, 19 February 2015


By Mavis McQuade

The common name for Cistus is Rock Rose.

Why grow them.

Cistus are native plants to our region, growing in the wild in the garigue and maquis.
Our climate is harsh and plants that can exist unaided in the wild should be looked upon as a starting point  when thinking of plants for our gardens.
Cistus are shrubs which mostly grow to a height and spread of 1metre though there are exceptions.  There are about 20 varieties of Cistus in the mediterranean climatic areas and in the Var the four most common varieties are Albidus, pink flowering with soft gray velvety leaves,

Monsepeliensis, small white flowers and quite coarse narrow dark green leaves, 

Salvifolius, medium white flowers with light green quite coarse sage like leaves

and Landanifer which is a true gum Cistus having large white flowers and long narrow sticky dark green leaves.

From the range of wild Cistus many beautiful garden hybrids have been developed and it is worth finding a Pepiniere that specialize in plants for dry gardens as their Cistus will all be named. In a garden centre they are just mainly called Cistus and one does not know how they will look.
Nearly all Cistus have single 5 petal flowers ( like a wild rose) which have a delicate look of crushed tissue paper. They flower from May to July which is not a long period but is well worth waiting for. The flowers appear in the morning and petals fall in the late afternoon but they are abundant. The flowers of the different varieties come in different sizes and the colours are white, or pale pink to almost magenta all with yellow centers  and on some varieties a brown or wine coloured sploge at the base of each petal. The shrubs are evergreens so make all year interest especially if kept in shape.

Back left: Cistus x purpureua; Back right: Cistus 'Gracewood Pink'; in front Cistus pulverulentus

Most Cistus prefer alkaline soil though there are a few that prefer acid. They can take a lot of heat so do well in full sun but can cope with dappled shade and look good in a setting of mixed varieties under larger trees being very happy under our native pines and evergreen oaks. They are happiest in poor but well drained soil and need little water and no feeding.

            Back: Cistus purpureus; Front: Two Cistus pulverulentus                     


Planting time is May to September. When planting add no organic material or fertilizer but if possible add gritty sand. Water the hole you have dug and check that the water drains away quickly, if not find a dryer place. Soak the root ball a little but do not tease out the roots as they are very brittle. Do not plant deeply. Do not feed. Cistus are very happy in a gravel garden.

Cistus corbariensis


Many experts say no pruning, only take off flower stems after flowering. I find that they soon get straggly and if you prune carefully they grow denser. Pruning can be done after flowering or around September or anytime you see tiny new buds lower down the stem or branch. Never cut in to old wood or lower than two new pairs of buds. Cistus are said not to sprout from old wood but occasionally  I find new shoots near the base of the plant.
Cistus x purpureus 'Alan Fradd'


Cistus are most easily propagated by cuttings. This is recommended  in September- November or early Spring, though I take some whenever I feel like it.
Take the cutting from a none flowering side shoot about 12 to 20 centimeters long, or with about 5pairs of leaves. Pull off the two lowest pairs of leaves and make a clean cut just below the lowest node. Sometimes I take a heel cutting by tearing a shoot from it's stem. Dip the cutting in hormone rooting powder and insert around the edges of a pot filled with damp compost mixed 50/50 with gritty sand and some vermiculite if you have any. I put quite a few cuttings in a pot in the hope of some success. Depending on the time of year put a plastic bag over the pot for a short time. When they look happy remove the bag and leave the pot in a sheltered place until they have rooted and then repot them individually. When they start to send out side shoots and are growing upwards nip out the growing tips to encourage them to thicken up. Within a year they should be ready for planting .
In the wild the native species seed freely and have very hard seed casings which can lay dormant for years but when subjected to great heat,as in forest fires,will crack open into activity. This applies to many plant seeds in the Garique and Marquis.

Pests and Disease

Cistus are usually problem free but can be come the host to a parasite called Cytinus which takes nourishment from the roots of the host. They have nothing to recognize them by other than at flowering time they produce small bright flowers at the base of the Cistus. On Cistus Albidus they are bright red and white. I have never come across this but will now look out for it.


Commercial Uses

Cistus have only one commercial use and this is from the Gum Cistus group. They exude a highly aromatic resin called Ladanum or Labdanum. This has been known from ancient times and was used in incenses, it is still invaluable in the perfume industry.
Ladanum, which comes from Cistus Creticus, is found , as the name suggests mainly in Crete.
The Ladanum is harvested today in the same way as it was by monks hundreds of years ago. This is done by flaying the bushes with an ancient tool still in use today. The tool is like a two foot handled rake but with two cross bars. From these, instead of tines, hang down leather straps ( plastic these days). The shrubs are lashed with these and the resin sticks to the straps and is then drawn off, rolled into balls or little cakes and sent to market. This is laborious work as it must be done when the sun is at it's hottest and the resin is released. 
Herodotus  noted 2 thousand years ago that goats were left to graze on the hillsides. The resin stuck to their beards and was then combed off.

Historically, in Greek and Turkish Folk Medecine, Cistus were used for a great variety of ointments,potions and infusions for everything from the plague,scurvy and hair loss to rheumatism  and asthma.
In Spain Cistus Clusii  is still used as an anti inflammatory and for skin inflammation .

Cistus clusii

If you are interested in learning more about Cistus may I recommend a website to you .
Produced by Robert Page at  Despite living in Yorkshire he used to hold the National Collection of Cistus and has bred and named many new varieties and I think would be considered a world authority .

Mavis McQuade

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