Cistus Labdanum in Andalusia

Cistus Labdanum in Andalusia

Cistus Labdanum, a mythical plant in perfumery

Cistus ladaniferus can be found all over the Mediterranean coast. This particular species of cistus is remarkable for the gum it produces in the summer which has been used in perfumery for over 3000 years.
The gum Labdanum has an exceptionally strong balsamic and ambery odour which made it highly considered amongst the « incense » of Antiquity when it was known as Ladanum Resin.
Up until the 20’s the gum was collected directly from the plant and made into balls or bars. Originally it was collected by the shepherds from Crete or Cyprus from the fleece of goats covered in gum by wandering in the cistus fields.
Later on the gum was collected by whipping the twigs with a large rake called a Ladanisterion, which was made of strips of leather from which the gum was scrapped with a knife.
From 1920, companies in Grasse began to produce the essential oil by distillation of the cistus from the Estérel region. At the same time in the Salamanca province of Spain harvesters began to collect the gum by boiling the twigs.

After the war, the production of gum developed rapidly and moved further south in Spain following the cistus fields growing along the Portuguese frontier.
During the 60’s the gum was produced in Extremadura then Western Andalusia where the largest areas of cistus in Europe were found. Cistus bundles began to be regularly exported to Grasse and a production of oil and concrete was set up in Andalusia.
Since 1988, Biolandes has set a production unit at the heart of the Huelva province producing cistus and Labdanum extracts. And in 2013 an automated unit was developed to produce labdanum gum.
Today, most of the world’s production of cistus and gum Labdanum derivatives comes from the Andevalo region.
We are pleased to share with you the unique story of a remarkable plant and its land, kept alive by people of tradition and spirit.

photos credits : Matthieu Sartre

Cistus Labdanum, master of the Andevalo Hills

The hills of Andevalo can be found in Western Andalusia, between Seville and Portugal, and they are covered with thousands of acres of wild cistus, dotted with age-old evergreen oak trees.
The cistus Labdanum grows all over the uncultivated land and grows back even after being cut or burnt.
Cistus predominates Andevalo’s landscapes.

Puebla de Guzman, a village of Traditions

Biolandes is located in this ancient mining village, whitewashed every year, and rooted in a rich culture and strong traditions.
It is a land of Andalusian horses and “Pata Negra” pigs which feed on acorns producing the outstanding “Jamon Iberico” ham.

The Romeria in april

Each year at the end of April, Puebla de Guzman celebrates the Virgin of la Peña, and the entire village climbs up to the top of the hermitage in a procession. For four days the villagers pay their respects to their Virgin and share their passion for horses and their taste for celebrations.

Nuestra Señora de la Peña

Villagers excitement reaches its peak as the Virgin is carried out of the church for the annual celebration.

The cloak with Cistus flowers

The cistus and its flowers are embroidered onto the Virgin’s clothes and are part of the village’s heritage.
After the tears of emotion, traditional songs and dances, glasses of brandy and parades on horses last all through the night.

The tears of Christ

In April, the cistus fields are covered in beautiful, delicate white flowers but which are not fragrant. Similar to white poppies, the flowers only keep their silky petals for two days.
The crimson marks on the five cistus petals have always been known as the « tears of Christ »

Amber in the hills

From April to June, after flowering, the cistus grows new stems which turn red as the gum begins to form.
With the heat of the day, the hills fill with the amber fragrance of Labdanum.

The gum in the sun

To protect themselves from the burning heat of the Andalusian summer, twigs and leaves form a gum whose enveloping fragrance is one of the most overpowering in the plant world.
The stems, covered in this sticky gum, are ready to be cut in July.

The Cistus Harvest

At Puebla de Guzman and its surrounding villages, cistus is picked from July to October to produce the gum Labdanum or to be distilled or extracted. After being cut, twigs will grow back and new plants germinate in every empty space. Cistus takes over once again and rabbits and partridges hide in the thickets.

Reaping form dawn to midday

All summer long, from dawn to midday, teams of harvesters cut the twigs using a sickle, bundle them up and pile them into cars and horse drawn carts.
They only remove the year’s new growth, the soft upper part covered with gum.
The work is hard and their clothes carry the scent of cistus until the end of the harvest.

A family affair

In Andevalo, the cistus harvest is often carried out by the gypsy communities.
In the villages, for several decades, families have been harvesting bundles in the morning and turning them into gum Labdanum by the afternoon.
By the following year, harvested fields begin to grow new cistus which will be ready for picking three years later.

The gum boilers

Labdanum gum is traditionally produced directly in the fields. Smoke, cistus in a heap and a few barrels indicate a gum Labdanum production spot.

First step: boiling the branches in water and soda. After boiling, a bucket of acid neutralizes the water and the crude gum forms on the surface. It is then stirred with a stick to remove water and to make it smooth.

Times are changing

Fire, soda and acid in the fields…
The process is from another epoch, yet it brings them an additional revenue during the summer and it is part of their history. Gum boilers know how to negotiate with the local authorities but they dread the day their trade will be forbidden.
More and more gum is being produced in small facilities with a better process control.

Responsible Development

Aware of the weaknesses in the traditional way of producing Labdanum gum, Biolandes has carried on investing in the supply channel by creating the first automated unit to produce gum that is more respectful of humankind and the environment.

Biolandes Andalucia in Puebla de Guzman

Since being built in 1988, the Biolandes plant has been producing a complete range of cistus and Labdanum products.
Each year the Biolandes team organizes the harvest and transformation of 3 000 tons of bundles and proudly exploits the result of 7000 days of harvest!

A source of oil and energy

In order to ensure the best quality of oil, the cistus is crushed and distilled continuously for 24 hours. More than one ton of oil is produced each year and the greater part is Organic certified.
The exploited cistus is stored and used as fuel to produce the steam for the entire production unit.

Concretes and resinoids

The extraction unit produces the cistus concrete which is the base for an absolute and several other specialities in fine fragrance such as the well known dynamone. The gum Labdanum produced in the factory is turned into resinoids and absolute.
Products of distillation or extraction of the twigs are called « Cistus » and products resulting from the gum are called « Labdanum ».

Day and night

During the cistus crop the factory works day and night.
At 6 in the morning, as the night team finishes to filter the oil and to pack the concrete, further in the hills, harvesters have already begun reaping.

CISTUS LABDANUM IN PERFUMERY

ORIGINS
80% of cistus derivatives come from Spain and mainly from Andalusia. Limited production also exists in Morocco, Portugal and Corsica. Products coming from the Estérel cistus (France) have become anecdotal.

HARVEST
The overall cistus harvest equals roughly 10 000 tons of bundles each year of which 6 000 to 7 000 tons are transformed into gum Labdanum.

PRODUCTION
Roughly 300 to 350 tons of raw gum Labdanum are produced each year. The distillation of cistus produces about 1.5 tons of essential oil and the extraction process produces 60 to 70 tons of concrete.

BIOLANDES
Biolandes Andalucia is the most important producer of cistus derivatives. The site produces about 40 to 50% of the world market’s essential oils and concretes.