April 21, 2000

Evergreen Shrub Review

(Note: A Bit of Earth sells expert opinions, not plants. Plants are selected for review and recommendation or rejection on the combined basis of Carolyn's tastes and her professional judgment of them as reasonable choices for the La Jolla ar ea, regardless of the distributor from whom they can be purchased. Healthy plants can be obtained from many sources all over town, the difference being chiefly one of price. Nurseries, garden supply stores, landscaping corporations, and hardware distribu tors are also up for review on this site.)

Cistus purpureus: Heaven-Scent from the Desert

What dusty-green, rounded shrub with large hot-pink tissue-paper flowers spotted with crimson waves cheerfully from inhospitable slopes and crags in spring and summer? Hint: It's easy to grow, loves to be neglected, and requires no pruning to look fabulous and bloom profusely for several months--in the ground or on the patio.

It's the orchid rock rose, Cistus purpureus, and it's in bloom now!

Cistus likes to sneak up on you. For months after my arrival in California, I wondered about that intriguingly dry, woody perfume that seemed to be strongest in the less pampered areas of the neighborhood. I came to love the smell before I ever saw the plant in bloom; I had assumed it was some scraggly little weed, or even dry-rotting wood. The combination of the bright flowers and the exotic aroma were simply irresistible. When I acquired my own specimen, I was in for another sweet surprise: the buds squatted innocently at the ends of the stems for several days without showing any sign of color or growth, then suddenly flung wide five half-dollar-sized petals with theatrical flair, curling them in slightly as evening approached.

A very nice thing about cistus' scent is that you can enjoy it all year whether the plant is in bloom or not. The leaves exude the oleoresin responsible for the fragrance. This hybrid's parents, Cistus creticus and especially Cistus ladanif er, have been used since ancient times in perfumery, ladanum being the modern substitute for the sperm whale's ambergris.


Not too much, please! Cistus would rather be left alone to make a spectacle of itself unencumbered by cultivation. Though cistus is not native to our continent, it thrives in this Mediterranean climate so like its original home. Pests, other than lands cape-laborers with shears, are not normally a problem. It grows quickly, so make sure that you have the space to accommodate it. Cistus purpureus, a compact variety, can attain a height and width of four feet. Caution: Cistus albidus can expand to a width of 8 feet! (Hint: not a low-maintenance hedge choice.) Make sure you know which species you're buying.

Can I Have One?

Almost certainly, unless your only bit of earth is a moist patch between two tall buildings. I have a rock rose blooming furiously in a small pot on the patio; I put it in the far sunniest corner when it isn't in bloom, and move it to the doorway to enjoy the flowers. You do need a mostly sunny spot, but Cistus will put up with most of La Jolla's idiosyncracies, including salt spray, sandy soil, cold wind, glaring sunlight, parched air, cold nights--and fire!. In return for these gifts, Cistus will brighten that empty steep slope and prevent erosion just for good measure. And, of course, supply that heavenly scent of the desert.