Fragrant Origins: Labdanum Resin - From Goats to Pharos

Posted by Mason Hainey on

There would be no perfume without labdanum. 

That may be a bit dramatic… but in the very least, a large part of the olfactive art would be missing.


Labdanum is one of the oldest known aromatics throughout history. With appearances in the Bible, ancient Egypt, the pharmacy, and even some liquors. It’s responsible for the transcendent sweet-resinous-balsamic aroma that marks the base of many perfumes, both indie and commercial alike. It’s become a hallmark to the family of scent known as “amber”.


The resin of labdanum comes from a low-lying shrub Cistus ladinifer that thrives in rocky outcrops along the Mediterranean coast. It’s also known as Rock Rose, named for the 5-petaled white flowers that look akin to the common tea rose. But it’s not the flowers that give us the scent of Labdanum… for that, we turn to goats. 


Legend has it, that it was Arabian goat farmers that mistakenly discovered this sticky aromatic resin. In the heat of the noon sun, the cistus plant excretes a resinous, thick sap from its leaves and branches ( thought to protect the plant from loosing moisture ). 


When grazing goats came to snack upon the cistus bush, their furs would become saturated in this thick, amber-like sap… much to the dismay of the farmers, who were responsible for cleaning it out. 


But, this is where something historic happens - As the farmers attempted to comb these clumps of sticky mass out of their goats furs, they noticed it’s pleasing, persistent sweet aroma. Goats are notoriously smelly beasts by nature, so this must have seemed of divine origin.  


And indeed it was. In Ancient Egypt, labdanum was held as sacred; thought to have been created from the “Tears of Osiris “, which fell from the heavens on to the cistus bush, to create this aromatic resin.  Pharos of the time were seen wearing faux-beards of braided goat furs, soaked in labdanum, as a symbol of leadership and connection to the heavens ( as first argued by Egyptian Scholar  Percy E. Newberry )


And the goats? They were celebrated as the manifestations of an Osirian deity known as “Ram of Mendes”. 


Thus, a new commodity was born. At first, goat farmers began raking the sticky resin from the goats using crude leather combs, or simply shaving their goats altogether and selling their resin-saturated hair throughout the Mediterranean. 


Harvesting practices soon evolved to include something known as lambadistrion - a whip-like device with two rows of many leather strips. These were swept over the cistus bushes to collect the sticky resins. It’s not as common, but a few small farms still use tools that resemble this ancient original. 


Today, labdanum is widely collected without the help of goats. It’s primarily harvested by cutting the entire bush and submerging the leaves and branches in boiling water, causing the sticky resins to float to the top. This gives us the a grade of crude labdanum resin, sometimes called an “oleoresin" or “gum”. 


Taking that crude resin and furthering refined via solvent extraction will yield labdanum absolute; a golden-amber, very sticky, substance with a consistency like that of honey. It’s aroma is incredibly rich, resinous,  sweet-balsamic with nuances of ambergris and hints of wood. Very potent and used though numerous formulas, across almost all genres - but most notoriously in amber-type perfumes. 


Steam distillation of the crude resin will result in a whole new material; know as “Cistus”. While similar in tone to Labdanum, Cistus is really it’s own little world - it’s brighter, louder and more fruity-balsamic with a dry-woody note as it dies down.  When added to a forest or amber blend, it has an incredibly ability to breathe air into a composition, as if lifting and expanding from the bottom up. If labdanum is the a “Bass”, then Cistus is more like an “Alto”, or even “Soprano”.  


Today, Labdanum, even has a place on WebMD, where it can be found as a treatment for a host of ailments, including lung infections (  bronchitis ), Diarrhea, edema and menstrual problems.  This is due to the powerful cocktail of substances within Labdanum’s chemistry ( mainly sesquiterpenes );  which are thought to stop viruses from attacking human cells.


From the bellies of goats, got the chin of pharaohs and back to the the pharmacy- we have a lot to thank this sticky aromatic resin for.  


So, thank you labdanum- the champion of perfume.

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