These plants fit the bill for gardeners seeking drought-tolerant species, says Miranda Kimberley.

Cistis purpueus AGM - image: Floramedia
Cistis purpueus AGM - image: Floramedia

Gardeners will be looking to drought-tolerant plants in these days of hosepipe bans, and Cistus is one that fits the bill. Originating in the Mediterranean and happy in dry and rocky soils, it may become a popular sale. They have lovely flowers, often with aromatic foliage, with varying habits to suit gardens of different sizes.

There are about 20 species of Cistus originating from countries including Portugal, Morocco and the Canary Islands. They are evergreen or semi-evergreen perennial shrubs, either small or medium-sized, sometimes low growing and of varying hardiness. Some of the shrubs have dark-green resinous leaves, while others have grey-green, downy leaves. The flowers are showy with five overlapping petals, as fine as tissue paper, in shades of white, pink and purple, often with a dark-red spot at the base of each petal.

Some Cistus are fully hardy, coping down to -12 degsC if planted in well-drained sheltered positions. These include C. laurifolius Award of Garden Merit (AGM), C. salviifolius and hybrids such as C. x corbariensis, C. x purpureus and C. 'Silver Pink'.

C. laurifolius (AGM) is one of the medium-sized shrubs, reaching 2m in height and with dark-green foliage.

C. ladanifer is a species with many popular variants and cultivars, although the straight species is quite a messy plant. But its interesting feature is the aromatic resin excreted from the stems and leaves, called labdanum. This is used in perfumes and it becomes opaque in cold weather, giving the plant a distinctive leaden appearance.

Its upright habit and dark-green aromatic foliage is a characteristic it has passed onto the hybrid C. x cyprius (a cross between C. ladanifer and C. laurifolius). Its flowers are similar to those of C. ladanifer - white petalled with a dark-red basal spot - but carried in groups at the end of shoots. C. x dansereaui is similar to C. x cyprius (AGM), but reaches just 1m high and across and also has slightly smaller flowers.

More compact species and hybrids include C. x skanbergii (AGM), C. parviflorous and C. crispus. They make excellent ground-cover plants.

C. xpurpureus (AGM), C. 'Anne Palmer', and C. 'Alan Fradd' make excellent specimen plants for beds and in containers.

There are a few Cistus, such as C. parviflorus, that are not fully hardy, but the majority are if given the right conditions in which to grow. You should always plant them in a sunny position in well-drained soil (some growers recommend alkaline soil). This should be done from May until September to give them a good chance to establish.

And unlike most plants, Cistus do not appreciate organic matter or fertilisers. Nor are they keen on being heavily pruned or having their roots disturbed. So keep your maintenance to pinching them back after flowering to keep them compact.

What the specialists say

Heather Godard-Key, owner, The Old Walled Garden Nursery, Warwickshire

"We have quite a large collection of Cistus at the nursery. My personal favourites include good old C. x cyprius (AGM). It's very pretty and tough - a good all rounder. Then there is C. parviflorous, which you don't see very often. It's mat forming, with pale-pink flowers. It is tough as old boots - we've had it down to -18 degsC.

"There are three things to remember when growing Cistus. First, they prefer alkaline soil. Second, to get them through a vicious winter they have to have good drainage. And third, they should be pruned lightly after flowering to keep them fresh. They'll end up looking like a bunch of twigs otherwise."

Peter Chapman, owner, Perryhill Nurseries, East Sussex

"With the drought in full swing now and much interest in plants for these types of conditions, Cistus are ideal because they naturally come from areas that are dry and have stony poor soils. They can have a tendency to become leggy and do not respond well to hard pruning so pinching out after flowering to keep them bushy is advisable.

"My favourites are C. x dansereaui 'Decumbens' (AGM) with its large, yellow-centred, white flowers with crimson spots at the base of each petal. It is low growing and broad.

C. populifolius sells on sight, as the attractive pink buds, which appear to hold one flower, burst open to reveal several white flowers. The commonly grown C. x purpureus is a beautiful rosy crimson and contrasts well with the many white-flowered varieties. Halimocistus and Halimium are closely related and add yellows to the range of colours."

In practice

Karl Rohrbach, planteria manager, Summerhill Garden Centre, Essex

"We stock a fairly large range of Cistus - around 10-12 varieties. The best sellers are C. 'Maculatus' (AGM) and C. 'Alan Fradd'.

"They are rapid growers and would get leggy and pot-bound if they stayed too long in the planteria, but fortunately there is a swift turnover - they are an 'in and out' plant.

"We don't have a chance to promote them - the public know the plant well and stock moves through fast. The ones with the colour tickets definitely outsell the ones without. They are obviously quite popular at the moment because they are a good plant for a dry position."

Species and varieties

C. x aguilarii 'Maculatus' AGM (H3) is a rounded, evergreen shrub with wavy-margined shiny, slightly sticky leaves that are aromatic. It produces large white flowers with a dark-red blotch on each petal in June and July. Height and spread: 1.2m.

C. x argenteus 'Peggy Sammons' AGM (H3) is a frost-hardy, bushy and upright evergreen shrub. Produces pink papery flowers in June and July, above grey-green downy leaves. Will tolerate all but very chalky soil, where it may become chlorotic over time. Height: 1.8m. Spread: 1.2m.

C. x cyprius AGM (H4) forms a medium-sized evergreen shrub with sticky green, polished leaves. Large, pure-white flowers with a dark basal blotch are borne from June to July. Height: 2m. Spread: 1.2-1.8m.

C. x dansereaui 'Decumbens' AGM (H4) is a low and spreading, frost-hardy evergreen shrub with mid-green leaves. It produces large white flowers with light-yellow and red blotches on the base of the petals in June and July. Height: up to 1m. Spread: 1.5m.

C. x dansereaui 'Jenkyn Place' is a frost-hardy upright evergreen shrub with large white flowers featuring crimson blotches at the base of each petal. The flowers appear in the summer and continue until the first frosts. The foliage is dark green and narrow. Height and spread: 1.5m.

C. ladanifer AGM (H3) bears large white flowers in June, with a brown blotch at the base of each petal. It is an evergreen shrub with dark-green, lance-shaped, sticky leaves. Height: 1.5m. Spread: 1.2m.

C. laurifolius AGM (H4) is one of the hardiest varieties, with dark-green leathery leaves. It produces white, papery flowers with a yellow centre in June and July. Height: above 2m. Spread: 1.5-1.8m.

C. x laxus 'Snow White' produces papery white flowers with orange centres above grey-green leaves. This plant is attractive to bees and butterflies and flowers from June to September. Height: 1.5m. Spread: 1m.

C. x lenis 'Grayswood Pink' AGM (H4) is a hardy, evergreen prostrate shrub with grey downy leaves and clear-pink papery flowers in June and July. Height: 30cm. Spread: 3m.

C. x pulverulentus 'Sunset' AGM (H3) is a compact spreading evergreen shrub with sage-green leaves and vivid pink flowers with yellow centres in June and July. Frost hardy. Height: 60cm. Spread: 90cm.

C. x purpureus AGM (H3) produces crimson flowers with a chocolate blotch at the base of each petal from June to July. It is an evergreen shrub with wavy-edged, dark-green leaves. Height and spread: 1m.

C. x purpureus 'Alan Fradd' is a rounded, evergreen shrub that produces large, crumpled white flowers with maroon/chocolate blotches at the base of each petal. The leaves are dark green and lance shaped. Height and spread: 1m.

C. xskanbergii AGM (H3) is an evergreen, frost-hardy, compact shrub that has wavy-edged grey-green leaves and profuse pale-pink flowers in the summer. Give the plant some shelter in frost-prone areas. Height: 75cm. Spread: 90cm.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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