Name: Labdanum (Cistus ladanifer)
Otherwise known as: Rock Rose, Cistus Creticus, Ladanum
Habitat: An evergreen shrub member of the Cistaceae family growing up to 2.5m in barren rocky hillsides in Mediterranean countries. It has dark green lanceolate leaves that display a smooth surface with an underside covered in fine hairs that exude a sticky resin which has been wild-gathered for millennia. The plant has a very attractive, single-petal white flower that has a crimson spot on each petal.
What does it do: The resin from this plant is known as labdanum and has been collected in the Mediterranean region since the time of the ancients. Until quite recently shepherds would drive their flocks through the plants so the valuable resin would adhere to their beards and whiskers, then would be harvested by cutting the hair and separating the resin by boiling it off after which it would be skimmed and cooled and rolled into coils and sold to physicians, herbalists, and the perfume industry that value it as a substitute for the increasingly rare ambergris – a substance excreted from the intestines of sperm whales – and used as a fixative. The ancient Egyptians manufactured a Lambadistrion that resembled a rake but instead of tines it had a rack of leather thongs that stripped the resin without the nuisance of separating the hair. Labdanum is now mostly produced by steam distillation. The aroma will be familiar to all who visit the monasteries and churches of the Orthodox religions.
The ancients valued the resin for treating lung infections, hernias, leprosy, scrofula and topical tumours. Modern herbalists claim it is anti-viral, is effective against IBS and is known to be an immune stimulant. Aromatherapists use the oil to reduce stress. It should not be taken when pregnant.
Alexander McCowan is author of the World’s most Dangerous Plants