Cretan Labdanum

The amazing story of Cistus creticus

Cistus Creticus Minoan History

Labdanum’s story dates back to ancient Greece, and the 1st European Civilization, the Minoan civilization. Minoans used it to create incense, therapeutic and cosmetic artifacts. Their appreciation and “love” of the plant is captured in one of the frescos discovered in the Minoan Palace named “Blue Bird”.  At the centre, is a blue bird perched on a rock. The surrounding landscape, consists mainly of rocks, wild roses and irises. The orange flower on the upper left corner is identified as Cistus creticus.

According to Herodotus (considered to be the Father of History – in greek Ἡρόδοτος), the resin was collected from the rock-rose bush by shepherds who drove their goats into thickets of the shrub. As mentioned in his book “Thalia”, written in 500 BC, the resin exudes from hairs which are found on the leaves and young stems of the rock-rose. The animals love to graze on these plants. When they have had their fill, their owners comb out the resin which has stuck to their beards and coats.

Cistus Creticus“Ledanum, which the Arabs call ladanum, is procured in a yet stranger fashion.  Found in a most inodorous place, it is the sweetest-scented of all substances. It is gathered from the beards of he-goats, where it is found sticking like gum, having come from the bushes on which they browse. It is used in many sorts of unguents, and is what the Arabs burn chiefly as incense.”[i]

Moreover, a notable number of doctors (Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Dioscorides et al.) mentioned the use and praised its valuable resign in Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Hippocrates (considered to be the Father of Medicine) named the small orange plant “Cistus” (Κίστος in greek). He addressed the usage of Cistus for antispasmodic properties[ii]  as well as women diseases[iii].

The Harvest

 Labdanum Tool - LadanisterionThe plant grows in the area around Sisses Village of Milopotamos district of Rethymno, Crete. The plant is harvested completely manually, during the summer period from early morning until noon, by “aladanarides”. They collect stems and leaves, while the secret in getting the beneficial ingredients of cistus is to collect them noon with intense sunshine and heat. Aladanarides find the herb in dry, semi-mountainous and often rocky areas. The herb covers large areas called cistones. It is a herbaceous bush with many branches and fluffy leaves. The root of cistus is hard and woody. The beauty of the flowers is that they do not last for more than a few hours, but during the flowering period one can see the bushes full of large bright flowers.

According to locals, the way used in the plant collection differs widely from the method used elsewhere. In Crete, the Aladanarides use the ancient method for the harvest of the flowers. More specifically, they use the ladanisterion, a tool made of wood and strips of leather. The gatherers collect the plants manually, with a push-pull movement, a challenging handwork, often taking place under the blazing sun and rocky slopes.

[i] Iródotos (Herodotus; Gr. Ἡρόδοτος) Ἱστορίαι (Histories), Book III (Thalia), Chap.112; trans. George Rawlinson in 1910; we are using the 1997 Everyman Library, Knopf edition, pp. 278-279.

[ii] Hippocrates of Cos,  Use of Liquids · LCL 482: Pages 326-327.

[iii] Hippocrates of Cos,  Diseases of Women 1–2 · LCL 538


Also called Ladanon, Ledanon, Black Balsam, Storbon and Gum Cistus.  It is brownish, sweet-scented oleo-resin obtained from shrubs Cistus ladanifer (western Mediterranean) and Cistus creticus (eastern Mediterranean), species of Rock Rose.

Labdanum is of great importance in modern perfumery: its fragrance closely resembles ambergris; it is economic in use and mixes well with other perfumes; it is a valuable fixative in many bouquet perfumes; and it provides the main material (Ambrein) used for manufacturing synthetic ambers. It is used not only in many quality perfumes (e .g. ‘Amouage’, ‘Cuir de Russie’ and ‘Jazz’), but also in soaps, cosmetics, deodorants and even insecticides.