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.
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.