Looking for something that has abundant flowers? Try Cistus - otherwise known as Rock Rose - it’s a bushy perennial that grows in profusion on hill slopes, in abandoned farmland and along the coast in poor soil, and is perfect for the Algarve. They are members of the Cistaceae or Rock Rose family. Rock-roses nearly always have yellow flowers whereas Cistus plants have pink or white flowers. Cistus flowers are large and beautiful and are bisexual producing both ovules and pollen. The flowers can be either solitary or in clusters.
They can be found throughout the Mediterranean from Morocco and Portugal through to the Middle East and on the Canary Islands. With over 20 different species, the delicate petals are papery and will adorn these bushy, evergreen shrubs in summer, with silvery-grey or green foliage that may be covered with an aromatic, sticky resin, that smells warm, woody and lemony. It lives alongside fungi that live in the soil - the fungi penetrate the Cistus roots and in fact improves their ability to absorb water and nutrients from the earth. Some of the fungi species even have the ability to kill other plants in the area thus giving their host an even better chance of surviving.
The essential oils distilled from Cistus are considered a wound healer, and as with most essential oils, has antiviral and antibacterial properties, but is also apparently effective for chronic conditions like psoriasis and eczema, and supposedly acts fast to stop bleeding from a fresh wound. It is said to increase lymph drainage, is beneficial for acne and oily skin, as well as the wrinkles of mature skin, and can be used for coughs, colds and bronchitis as well. Such an all-rounder sounds too good to be true, but it has been around since Egyptian times, and in fact for the Kings of Israel, the Cistus tree was one of the five sacred aromas of holy anointing.
It is used in the perfume industry too – the resin Labdanum obtained from the Cistus is also known as ladanum or ladan. This sticky brown resin has been used for a long time as an important ingredient in the perfume industry because of its similarity to ambergris – the compound that came from sperm whales, which is illegal now, as sperm whales are a protected species. The Labdanum is what gives a perfume the deep scent of amber.
The plant itself will give you flowers, and once those flowers are faded another takes its place, so you will have flowers all summer, giving your bushes the impression they are studded with blooms.
The seeds, which can lie dormant for long periods of time, have very hard coatings, and as a result, they are well adapted to the frequent wildfires that sometimes wipe out huge swathes of trees and shrubs, as fires can actually soften the seed coatings and stimulate the plants into growth. As a result Cistus is often the first plant to recover after a fire giving it a head start against other plants with which it must compete for land and food.
Such an easy plant! These hardy shrubs will grow in a location with full sun and soil that drains freely, including poor soils where other shrubs struggle to take hold. Water them regularly during their first growing season, but once established, they are drought tolerant. They don’t like to be heavily pruned, so limit trimming to the minimum necessary to repair winter damage and shape correction. As the branches age, they become weak and stop bearing flowers, and these older branches should be removed by cutting them away at the base. Snip off faded blooms to preserve the buds that will form next year’s flowers.
Rockrose may be propagated using wood cuttings. In the summer, cut off a shoot of 3 to 4 inches from the new growth on the plant. Dip it in rooting hormone and then place the cutting into a small pot – water it gently and speak to it sweetly, and it will be good to go outdoors the following spring!
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.