Cistus x pulverulentus 'Sunset'There are many garden smells I love. The evening scent of honeysuckle in June, pure, bright, overwhelming. The evening scent of angels’ trumpets in November (no frost here yet) – heady, intense, overpowering. The fresh loaminess of turned earth. The sweet floral crispness of stored cooking apples, their springlike zing always surprising me. The greenhouse smells of wood and geranium and salvias.

But of all the smells that halt me in my tracks, it’s the scent of cistus or labdanum that halts me most, and then haunts me. I can’t pin it down; it oscillates between categories too much – balsamic, leathery, animalic, resinous, green – for me to move on. Defying categorisation, it’s become one of my favourite perfume ingredients.

I’ve had all sorts of cistus shrubs over the years, most notably Cistus creticus with its shell pink flowers and its reputation as the best source of labdanum, and the variety ‘Sunset’ with brighter flowers, often described as rose pink but tending towards magenta in the best (or, if your tastes are less garish than mine, worst) examples. All of them have sticky leaves, from where the gummy resin is extracted (I’ll leave the details to better people than me – perfumeshrine has explored this with great eloquence). My current favourite cistus I grow is the hybrid x cyprius, whose leaves become lead grey in cold weather, as though metalwork rather than plant. And its aroma is everpresent – in rain, sun, or on still, dull days.

Cistus flowers don’t last, and they seem to be short day plants, at least with me, the flowers blooming best in spring and sometimes again in autumn. The flowers open in the early morning and if the day is hot, shatter by midday, their papery petals lost, their yellow stamens fading.

And in many perfumes, the aroma doesn’t last either. Take Donna Karan’s Labdanum from her Essence series. This is a perfect cistus scent for 20 minutes but fades to a creamy sweetness, that hints at everyday amber, way too quickly. I like it, but wish the wonder lasted. And Poivre 23 by le Labo has a wonderful journey through labdanum a few  minutes in. Here, I don’t mind its loss: the many facets of this scent are the reason to wear it.Resized_Cistusxdans.Decumbenssm

Perhaps Andy Tauer’s l’air du desert marocain is the best example of a cistus note that lasts, held up and supported by other equally rugged aromas. This is a rough-hewn perfume, in all the right ways, and undoubtedly still Andy’s masterwork. ‘Learning to be satisfied with what I have’ has been my motto for this last year of the first decade of the 21st century (what an elaborate way to avoid using noughties, which makes my toes curl); perhaps I should stop with my cistus hunt and just accept I’ve found the best already.

What note haunts you, and why? And, cos I’m a contrarian type, if you think, ‘What a dolt! He hasn’t sniffed x or y for his labdanum fix? Man, that guy’s like a noob.’, please lemme have your recommendation toot sweet.

  • Momlady says:

    Mmm, Labdanum. Yummy. Clary Sage (essential oil) does that*tripping on a olfactory high*thing for me too. And most recently Oud/Agarwood. They all have a strange quality that just bumps me out of everyday reality and sends my spirit/imagination soaring. For me Lavendar was the first scent that triggered an OBE(out of body experience)…must have been all of 6 at the time. lol.

  • janh says:

    Best smell in the world: my Sutter Gold rosebush flowers. Citrus and rose mixed.

  • Scent Hive says:

    Roxana Villa of Illuminated Perfumes uses labdanum quite frequently and very beautifully. It’s in her amber base, used in: Lyra, Aurora, Sierra and Vera. (I love both Lyra and Vera) Her new one, Terrestre also has labdanum I believe.

    Cimbalom has it as a main note: Labdanum, Patchouli and Jasmine with Citrus and Spice.

    Vera: lavender, sage and hay

    Lyra: Ambery, floral. Jasmine, Frangipani (Plumeria blossoms), Ylang Ylang, an old Vintage of Mysore Sandalwood and a few varieties of Orange for the top notes.

    Lee, check out her line if you want to explore labdanum 🙂

  • Tara C says:

    I love labdanum too… and benzoin, and styrax, amber, cedar, iris, sandalwood, gaiac… just about anything to do with wood, resins and incense… plus tobacco and leather. I’m a woody oriental girl at heart.

  • Cheryl says:

    Osmanthus at some times of the year. Ambergris. Hay. These notes I find utterly haunting, rich, and elusive.

  • Disteza says:

    Hmm, as much as I would like to chime in with leather, I think I’ll be completely honest and go with oudh. The good stuff though, not the sort of stuff that’s easy to come by. Evidently, the rule with oudh is that if you paid less than your monthly rent/mortagage payment, it’s not gonna be all that. Horrible pricing, but oh, the olfactory intoxication! I swoon, I protest, I buy anyway after yet more swooning. =p~
    On the plus side, a good oudh lasts for days, even on a ‘fume eater such as myself.

  • Andrea D says:

    Also, l’air du desert marocain is stunning, absolutely gorgeous, and I would punch an old lady in the face to afford it.

    I have so many scents that haunt me, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

  • Andrea D says:

    Oh, so THAT’S labdanum? I had no idea. This grows in the park near my school, and the smell is really beautiful, but I could never identify exactly what it was or where it was coming from. Thanks for this post!

  • Nava says:

    I LOVE Donna Karan’s Essences – all but Jasmine. Labdanum and Wenge are my faves, and you’re right – Labdanum does dry down sweetly, but in my opinion, Wenge is the real star. It mixes very well with Chaos.

  • Kristin says:

    2scents-I’m starting to explore iris scents-can you name a few of your favorites? I think I prefer the more earthy type, not the powdery, makeup types. Thanks!!

    • Lee says:

      Have you tried Bois d’Iris and Iris Silver Mist? Oh and l’homme de coeur?

    • 2scents says:

      Yes, yes and yes. Also 28 La Pausa is very natural smelling and in my top selections. Love Homme de coeur! The cypress kills me. Bois d’Iris was almost a keeper, then I think it must have been the whiskyish note that ended it for me. I am unique among iris lovers in rejecting the ISM which is truly earthy…(runs and hides)

  • 2scents says:

    Iris is a note I grew into and it absolutely haunts me now. I’ve enjoyed many Iris-centric scents, but I am especially appreciative of the note as part of a composition. I wore Bois des Iles yesterday and kept marvelling at the shimmering iris within.

  • sherobin says:

    On a daily basis I wear gardenia, honey, leather, or neroli. All of these can be mesmerizing. Rose is reassuring. But the only fragrances that really haunt me are frankincense and ambergris. Both can make me cry, but I reserve frankincense for solemn occasions, and ambergris for those days I can afford to be distracted by the haunting. Or just need a good haunting. Frankincense is heaven and ambergris is life itself. Ambergris is so evocative of something so nameless it kind of scares me.

  • Shelley says:

    You cistus tease, you. I don’t live in a climate that is conducive to cistus. No can grow. :-< But I am enjoying my sloooow getting to know you with the note. Notes I know I do love and love being haunted by: narcissus, sandalwood, hay. Nobody has mentioned galbanum yet, and that is one that is a double-edged haunt for me--sometimes it's love, sometimes it's a stalking. But I am really glad it is around. And, I think, castoreum? Still working that one out, in terms of how it is NOT civet. But it is another animalic sticky trap, luring you in and not letting go, but for some reason to me a little less naughty-take-a-bath as civet. Maybe it's just the combinations I've found it in.

    • DinaC says:

      Hi Shelley! It looks like we posted at the same time…and wouldn’t you know it, I mentioned galbanum. It’s my favorite! :)I can appreciate what you’re saying about it being an iffy thing. Sometimes it can be screechy maybe?

      I need to learn more about civet and castoreum. Haven’t explored that area yet.

      • Shelley says:

        Dina, we did! :d/ Yes, and now that I see yours, I’m going to run over to your corner for a little while. Galbanum fans seem to be a smaller crowd. I have been a big fan of Bel Respiro for a while now, and since I found No19 in parfum, it is true love, crazy morpher that it is. (Opens with that lung clearing breeze, eventually becomes that smooth floral something.) Have you tried Jacomo Silences?

        Screechy. Yeah, it can be. I think some of those here think not just screechy, but like a banshee… 😉

        • DinaC says:

          Nope, haven’t tried Silences, but I’m writing down on my “To Try” list right now. Thanks!! :d

          • Musette says:

            I LOVE Silences! That was Mistress Shelley’s fault. LOVE IT.

            Greens, soft/sharp everything inbetween – greens are some of my very favorites!

            and violet
            and leather
            and citrus
            and mint (a very few – okay: one – but still)
            and jasmines

            xoxox >-)

          • DinaC says:

            Dear Musette,

            We have a lot in common. In addition to galbanum, I also love:
            violets, leather, bergamot, and jasmine. I’d also add sandalwood and vetiver. I’d welcome any more suggestions of things to sniff. I’m just an eager beginner in this arena and am loving it!

          • Shelley says:

            You do??? How have we not gotten around to discussing this? 😕 😡

            Whaddaya think? I’m sensing Jolie Madame, vintage or mod, as something for Dina to try for sure…OMG, when did I become someone making suggestions around here? @-)

          • Lee says:

            Love this conversation!

          • Musette says:

            Why not? You suggest as much as you like! I agree on JMadame. Also, if she is inclined, she should go on TPC and grab a bit of Vent Vert and possibly Silences?

            I told you about Silences – but we were in the midst of cocktails and tons of samps. I still have a bit of the samp you gave me. I quite like it.

            xoxox >-)

          • DinaC says:

            Love Jolie Madame. A darling MUAer gifted me with a bottle, and I’ve been enjoying it all fall. It’s not the vintage, alas, which I hear is even more awesome, but I’m delighted with it.

            I’ve read about vintage Vent Vert being ah-mazing, and the modern not so much. Yes, yes, my list for TPC is always growing longer and longer. 🙂

            Thanks for the good suggestions!

    • Lee says:

      Hay and castoreum. Now there’s a magical combo!

  • DinaC says:

    For me, the magic word is “galbanum,” another resin. Love that note, especially in No. 19 and Bel Respiro. Just can’t get enough of it. My favorite category is green.

    L’Occitane just came out with a scent they are calling Labdanum. I sniffed it and enjoyed it. It’s a nice spicy, amber-y thing. Had great sillage on the blotter paper. But I’ve read on MUA from those who know that it really doesn’t smell like genuine labdanum at all. I’m too much of a neophyte to know.

    I enjoy your posts. Your gardening sounds really beautiful. I have a “black thumb” unfortunately! :((

    • Lee says:

      I hope one day you replace your thumb with a better one!

      Especially as you love galbanum so much!

    • tania says:

      Oh, I tried that L’Occitane Labdanum, in fact I made a special trip for it. But I sprayed it and, nothing! Most odd. I have no anosmias that I’m aware of, but could not smell this at all. I sprayed some on a tissue for later, and after a while I could smell it on that. I thought it was mostly amber and ginger. Nice, but not specially labdanum-y. I wish they’d had samples so I could give it a proper try on skin, but no. So I ended up buying a small bottle of their L’Ambre. After all, I didn’t want to waste a trip… 😉
      Noteshat haunt me? Hmm. Is galbanum the thing that gives Bandit and Azuree their bite? If so – that. Amongst other things, depending on my mood, of course! I can’t really pick just one.

  • Silviafunkly says:

    I am haunted by the smell of jasmine absolute to the point that I am contemplating buying some, diluting and applying on skin. Also I have a weird violet perfume in my head, one day I hope I’ll find something that matches.

    Generally I tend to be a sucker for a lot of Bois (d’Armenie, de Violette, des Iles, d’Iris, Blond) and never have enough incense/resiny stuff. Love rose too. And oud. And tuberose. And cumin. And hay. And I can’t possibly leave out leather and skunk either. Oh dear…

    • Lee says:

      I have a sambac jasmine in my greenhouse and when it’s in flower, a phenomenal mix of white flowers, indoles and gasoline…

  • Melissa says:

    One note? Nope, can’t do it. But it seems that I’m in good company here, because my list includes leather, tuberose, jasmine, labdanum, benzoin, ambergris, civet, rose, oakmoss, iris, etc. I could go on.

    Of course everything depends on the treatment. I almost added oud to the list. I love a good oud, but I am so picky about the way that it is presented. Amouage Homage makes me swoon. LL Oud-well, not so much.

    • carter says:

      Come sit by me, hon, and we can swoon over Homage together.

      I listed leather only because I am discovering that it is a prominent player in a majority (although certainly not all) of my favorite ‘fumes: Bandit, Jolie Madame, Scandal, Rumeur, Cuir de Russie, Tabac Blond, Cuir Pleine Fleur, and now Cartier La Treizieme Heure. It seems to be a common denominator note, in other words, and while it is rarely the lead, it is so regularly featured that I can’t help but recognize that leather seems to have cast quite a powerful spell.

      In harmony with florals like violet, rose and iris, or wood, oud, smoke and spice, I follow its siren song.

      • Melissa says:

        Oh, your list is soooo swoonworthy. I do need to spend some time with the Cartier. We played with it a bit at March’s party, but too many scents were in the air. I never really experienced the drydown. The opening was a bit birchtar-heavy perhaps? Although March’s SIL (if I recall) was wearing it and it was delightful on her an hour in.

        Now you have me thinking of other leather scents. In fact, I think that my go-tos this season are often leathers and leather chypres. Cuir de Russie, Tabac Blond, vintage Diorling, vintage Miss Dior (I find it as leathery as it is floral in the vintage), a drop of Scandal that a beloved someone gave me. The touch of fine leather in Doblis. Swoon, drool….

        • carter says:

          I was very surprised when it dawned on me how many of my best buddy scents include it as a key note. Keynote! It speaks to me! :d

    • Lee says:

      Homage is incredible, it’s true.

  • Parfymerad says:

    Lovely & evocative description of a note I find really hard to isolate – thanks! – and once more, a question provoking radical indecision: a single note? Like the others, that feels well-nigh impossible; how about 3:

    Tuberose (I’ve recently discovered the white-floral diva within); jasmine (lamenting its soon-to-be elimination from commercial perfumery:(&#40;); saffron (my Swedish roots mean I’m genetically programmed to love this stuff).

  • Olfacta says:

    Hi Lee — I didn’t know it was possible to grow cistus shrubs in anything but a Mediterranean climate! I wonder how they would do here (temperate winter with some cold snaps/occasional ice storms, specific springs & autumns, hot/humid summers). What do you think? Where do you get the plants? I’d like to use this in a scent garden if I can. Thanks!

    • Lee says:

      I’m not sure how well they’ll cope with humidity. They shrug off light frosts no problem but are pretty shortlived (they don’t like pruning and go woody pretty quickly). They’re available in most good nurseries in the UK – I don’t know about there…Probably plenty of availability on the west coast.

      • Shelley says:

        West coast is the one place I saw referenced when I tried to hunt some down after reading today. (oh, not that I garden lemm, no, not me… :-\” suppose that’ll be whistling guy, or no?

        I think I’m gonna asked for a used goat’s beard comb for Christmas. ;))

      • Olfacta says:

        Hmmm….thanks for replying. Our heat and humidity in summer seem to doom many plants that do fine in other areas — or maybe it’s the bugs. But one can always hope. I keep trying to grow roses, for instance. I’ll poke around and see if I can find any suppliers in the US. Appreciate the comment!

  • Connie says:

    Since I like resins, too, and had no idea how Labdanum even smelled..(not that I would recognize it anyway) I purchased LL as part of the 3-sample kit. I like it but it quickly gets sweet-ish on me and I’m none the wiser as far as identifying the note. I’m with AllaboutEve above and need a kit to help me with identifying scents.

    But I do love lavenders, leather, non-sweet vanilla, tobacco–(must be the heritage) 🙂 Oh who am I kidding? Seems as though everything is haunting with a vengeance and I can’t even identify most of them. Hard to be a perfume neophyte amongst such smart folks but I’m really enjoying the wisdom they impart … and they’re pretty damn funny, too. 🙂

    Lee, I always enjoy your posts. The photos above are beautiful, what gorgeous blooms from these plants.

    A lovely weekend to all. Wish me luck as I’ll be taking my nieces to see the Twilight movie … along with 345843985 other teens. Weeeeeee!

    • Lee says:

      The LL version isn’t helpful to identify the notes. Best way to spot it is in Diptyque’s Maquis candle – rule out the patchouli and it’s near enough all labdanum.

  • Louise says:

    As for Labdanum, I love the LL-but knowing LL-the other notes overwhelm and the Lab isn’t center stage. I do smell it, deep in the powdery comfort.

    My current scent ghoul has to be saffron-I can’t eat enough, or dip myself with enough. Yesterday was Costume National 21, today will be an Arabian Oud shop oil. I must revisit Saffran Troublant-I may just be ready for now.

    Thanks for the lovely post, Lee, and happy weekend to all :d/

  • air says:

    These days I got an obsession with Iris Silver Mist of Lutens, I feel it’s the first time I have really smelled iris….
    By the way I think that angels trumpets is what we call “the evening”, and they have such a haunting perfume, after a hot summer day, when they open, it’s a precious childhood memory.
    And of course tuberose!!! I am a victim of it, because I suspect that it makes a quick circle on me , gets soon an explosive built up that I wish would stay there for ever , but after 2 hours a think it gets week, The only way to really find out is to buy one!

    • Lee says:

      Tuberose and iris. Interesting ends of the perfume spectrum!

      • air says:

        Iris is quite unexpected for me though.. cause some Iris perfumes have a kind of hard iris and then I think that an old queen should wear this.. Iris Silver Mist is soo different, and as well van Arpel & Cleef Bois iris or sg like hat is also very very good, but .. I am stuck here with the silver one. I have to give me a bottle for present at spring. At the moment I love the suspense of not having it!!

    • allabouteve says:

      Silver Iris Mist is SUCH a strange beauty…I love it for beeing so interesting and weird…but don’t know if I could acutally wear it and feel like “myself”…
      Angels trumpets…are those those yellow flowers that open when it’s getting dark? Had them in my garden years ago, as a kid.Wonderful. I also love the smell of heliotrope(do you call it that way in english?)..sweet honey-ish..

      • air says:

        Yes for me it’s also a childhood memory, they had also white, pink, end deep purple colour. It was sooo magic when they were open after sunset….
        I f you like the heliotrope, you have to smel heliotrope by Etro, it’s exactly that sweet honey-ish… but very good! I could have bought it butI am stuck with Iris Silver Mist……it is so unexpected that i got obsessed by this perfume. It’s like the feeling that you definetely know this type of man does not appeal to you and you find yourself desperately in love with someone of this type… I don’t know if that makes sense:-? Cause I thought I did not like Iris.

  • allabouteve says:

    Good morning guys!
    Well, labdanum..don’t even know what it smells like, I confess (*hangs head in shame…*)!!So I can’t give any good ideas.But if it’s one of the ingredients that makes L’Air such a stunner, then I like it, indeed!
    Talking about single notes,actually I believe they should make little “Chemistry-sets” for perfumistas (or wannabeperfumistas,hehe)to help identify single notes. I mean, sometimes things are easy, after smelling Tubereuse Criminelle and Fracas, one fine day I identified an overload (on me) of tuberose in “poison”…but normally I need extra help..
    The notes which haunt me..well, it’s more like a journey to find:the perfect lavender(just love it, already have several lavenders, all good, but always wanting to know if there’s something even better..), the perfect leather (normally leather smells all yucky on me, I want to find THE leather that smells like the inside of an expensive fine leather purse (scent which makes me bury my nose in some of my purses..yup..), the perfect non-sweet vanilla..and that’s about it..

    Btw..hey, loved your “toot sweet”! :d

    • Well they do exist: Osmoz sells three kits (woods and resins, flowers and “mythical accords”). The only problem is that for preservation purposes, the samples aren’t alcohol-based and thus, a little harder to “read” quickly, but it’s a helpful pedagogical tool. The Perfumer’s Apprentice website also sells kits.

    • Lee says:

      Very helpful woman, that Denyse!

      You tried Daim Blond for purse kick?

      • allabouteve says:

        Hey,you’re right..just dug out my’s a nice soft leather..Also, today my mother used my Cuir Ottoman..and yesss..there it was (on her), that expensive-purse-note!!!It doesn’t smell quite as good on me, but it’s still my favorite leather!
        Oh! And I just saw that the guys from Galimard (Grasse)also have one of those kits (in this case a “perfume creation kit”, which could be quite interesting too).

  • Robin R. says:

    Do we HAVE to keep to just one, Lee??

    If so, I’d have to say resins. (Okay, I know that’s cheating already, because it’s plural!) There are so many ways they can play out. They can be dark and balsamic, honeyed and golden, smoky and pale, sweet and ambered . . . At the moment, my HG of resin-centric scents is Bois d’Armenie, a study in benzoin laced with incense and balsams.

    I’m with Denyse on narcissus absolute. And vetiver. And I’m with Carter on leather and skank.
    There is fresh, creamy oakmoss.
    There is jasmine.
    There is osmanthus.
    There is rose.
    There are woods. Gaiac, sandalwood, cedar, oak, sycamore, birch . . .
    There is iris.
    There is fig.

    Hell, I think everything haunts me these days.

  • Ok: the one I’ve got under my skin… Oh God there isn’t one. Leather like the lovely lady above, tuberose, narcissus absolute is pretty damn fabulous… Can’t resist a good vetiver either.
    Labdanum fix: you need to try TDC’s new Oriental Lounge.
    Decade soon to be over: I’ve finally settled on the Double Ohs. Got a Bond-ish (as in Fleming) ring to it.

  • carter says:

    The one note (that repeats and repeats in my ear) is leather. Want it, need it, got to have it 3:-o