How to grow cistus
With their dainty tissue-paper-like flowers, cistus are among the most drought tolerant of shrubs. This, and their ability to thrive in poor, stony soil, makes them ideal for Mediterranean-style, coastal and gravel gardens. They're easy to grow, need little maintenance and flower abundantly all summer.
- Bushy, spreading, evergreen shrubs
- A profusion of short-lived flowers in summer
- Easy to grow and drought tolerant
- Plant in full sun and free-draining soil
- Mostly hardy in the UK, but avoid very cold or windy sites
- Take cuttings or sow seeds to produce new plants
All you need to know
What are cistus?
Cistus, commonly known as rock roses or sun roses, are bushy, spreading, small to medium-sized evergreen shrubs. Native to southern Europe and northern Africa, they naturally grow alongside plants such as lavender, sage and broom on thin, nutrient-poor soil.
Although our climate and garden conditions are quite different, cistus are generally hardy, reliable and easy to grow in the UK, as long as they get plenty of sunshine and have very free-draining soil. They aren’t particularly long-lived, however, with most providing a good flowering display for around ten years.
Choosing the right cistus for you
There are 20 or so species of cistus, as well as several widely grown hybrids and numerous cultivars, giving gardeners plenty of choice. Still, it can be hard to know which will grow well and look best in your garden, so to help you choose the right plant, consider the following:
The vast majority of cistus species are hardy in the UK, as long as they're not planted in frost pockets or on exposed sites. In colder parts of the country, consider the hardier species Cistus laurifolius, C. × hybridus and C. × cyprius and their cultivars.
Cistus ladanifer and its cultivars, popular for their dark crimson-blotched petals and aromatic resin-coated leaves, need a more sheltered position.
Many cistus grow equally well in neutral, slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soil. Some, however, are better able to tolerate alkalinity, so if you have chalky soil, consider one of the following:
- Cistus × argenteus
- C. albidus
- C. creticus
- C. × dansereaui
- C. laurifolius
- C. monspeliensis
- C. × pulverulentus
- C. × purpureus
Cistus ladanifer and its cultivars, on the other hand, show a preference for acidic conditions and may become chlorotic (yellow) in alkaline soils as they get older.
See our guide to testing your soil pH and our guide to soil types.
Cistus are grown for their profusion of summer flowers, borne over a long period, in shades of white, pink and purplish-red, some with a prominent crimson blotch at the base of each petal. Cistus monspeliensis ‘Vicar’s Mead’, with soft yellow petals, offers something a little different.
To best appreciate their display, choose a colour that complements the rest of your planting scheme. White and soft-pink flowers blend well with the blue hues of other Mediterranean favourites, darker pink injects colour into bright and hot schemes, while those with blotched petals make eye-catching specimen plants.
Eventual size and shape
Cistus come in a range of shapes and sizes, from low-growing but wide-spreading Cistus salviifolius ‘Prostratus’, at as little as 30cm (1ft) tall, to the upright, bushy habit of C. ladanifer at 2.4m (8ft) or more.
The vast majority of popular cultivars grow to between 50cm (20in) and 2m (6⅔ft), with a spread similar to their ultimate height. If you are after a particularly low-growing plant for the front of a border, a wide-spreading one to fill a sunny bank or a tall one to frame other plants, then check labels carefully when browsing to ensure they’re suitable for your needs.
For help choosing a cistus you could:
- Take a look at our plant lists of cistus by colour and size
- Visit a renowned dry or gravel garden, such as RHS Garden Hyde Hall or The Beth Chatto Gardens, to see cistus in mixed plantings
- Visit the National Collection holder
- Use RHS Find a Plant and search for ‘cistus’ to browse photographs and plant descriptions. You can also narrow your search criteria by soil type, hardiness, flower colour and RHS Award of Garden Merit, to find those best suited to your requirements
- Look for cultivars with an RHS Award of Garden Merit, which shows they performed well in RHS trials, so are reliable choices - 16 cistus cultivars have an RHS AGM
How and what to buy
Cistus are widely sold in garden centres as container plants, usually in 2–3L pots. As they are not particularly long-lived shrubs, and flower well from a young age, it is usually not worth buying larger specimens.
As evergreens, they are likely to be available year-round, but it is easiest to assess vigour and compare flowers if bought during late spring and summer.
- Look for plants with plenty of growth near the base of the stems. Cistus get leggier as they mature, and buying a plant in this condition will make it harder to train and will shorten its lifespan in your garden
- Avoid those with moss, weeds or liverwort on the surface of the compost, as this too suggests you are buying an older plant
- Check the rootball if you can – the roots should be developed enough to be visible through the holes in the base of the pot, but not be so congested that you can’t see any soil
- Avoid those showing signs of stress, damage or disease – particularly any broken branches or yellowing leaves
To track down stockists of more unusual species or specific cultivars, use our RHS Find a Plant.
When to plant
Cistus are best planted in spring, as warm, moist soil helps the roots to establish rapidly, and plants have time to settle into their new environment before the challenges of winter.
If you buy your shrub in summer, plant it as soon as possible and water regularly to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Where to plant
Cistus are versatile shrubs and can be grown in mixed borders or en masse to cover banks, as informal hedges or single specimens, in the ground or in containers.
Bear the following in mind when choosing a suitable site for your plant:
- These shrubs grow and flower best in conditions similar to their natural habitat – so in full sun, in free-draining soil
- Cistus prefer a sheltered location, away from strong winds and frost pockets – particularly the more tender species such as C. ladanifer
- Allow enough room for them to grow – cistus don’t respond well to hard pruning if they outgrow the available space
- If planting in a mixed border, ensure the cistus won’t become overcrowded by neighbouring plants. If parts of the plant die back due to over-shadowing, they are unlikely to regrow
- Established cistus dislike being moved, so try to choose your plant’s ‘forever home’ from the outset
How to plant
These shrubs are easy to plant and should settle in well when planted in spring – simply follow our guides to planting shrubs in borders and planting in containers. Of particular note when planting cistus:
When planting in a container, use loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 3, with added grit to improve drainage
Although it can be tempting to add grit, sand or gravel to improve heavy soil, you need extremely large quantities to make a noticeable difference. Digging in organic matter, such as garden compost, leaf mould or manure, not only improves structure and drainage, but boosts fertility too.
Water newly planted cistus regularly and thoroughly, especially in warm weather, for the first year or so while the roots are getting established
Once established, cistus are extremely drought tolerant, so should only need watering during prolonged dry spells
If planting in containers or borders with an automatic irrigation system, set the watering frequency to allow the compost/soil to dry out between waterings
If drought has set in and your plant does need a drink, give it a thorough soaking once or twice a week rather than watering little and often.
Cistus dislike overly fertile soils, which can result in leafy growth at the expense of flowers, soft growth that is more susceptible to frost damage, and a leggier plant with a shorter lifespan.
It isn’t necessary, therefore, to regularly feed cistus, or to enrich the soil with annual mulching. However, if you feel that growth needs a boost, apply a balanced fertiliser such as Growmore at 70g per sq m (2oz per sq yd) in spring as growth resumes.
Individual cistus flowers only last a day, but they are continually produced throughout summer. This constant renewal, with spent flowers naturally shrivelling and dropping, means deadheading is often impractical and unnecessary.
However, if yours is in a prominent position or is a cultivar with particularly large blooms, you may want to deadhead to improve its appearance. Do this by hand, lightly pinching and pulling shrivelled flowers from the plant with an upwards motion.
Likewise, you may prefer to rake up the carpet of spent flowerheads beneath your plant, adding them to your compost or green waste bin.
Pruning young cistus
Young plants respond well to pruning, carried out in spring once the risk of frost has passed. Pinch out or lightly prune back the leading stem and any strong sideshoots by around two-thirds of their length, to encourage branching and a bushy, well-balanced shape.
Pruning established cistus
Established plants don’t need regular pruning, and often don't recover well from it. So pruning should generally be limited to the removal of any dead or frost-damaged growth in spring.
However, to stop established plants wasting energy on seed production and to help retain a compact shape, particularly on those that produce flower clusters at the tips of shoots, you could give them a light trim after flowering. This is best done only in mild parts of the UK or very warm, sheltered gardens, as regrowth from this late prune is susceptible to frost damage.
Shrubs and trees: light pruning
Shrubs: pruning evergreens
Renovating older plants
Cistus naturally become leggy and sprawling with age, so you may be tempted to cut them back hard, to try to regain a compact, bushy shape. However, as with many Mediterranean shrubs, their older, woody stems don’t reliably resprout after pruning, so in most cases it is better to replace them.
Cistus are easy shrubs to propagate by cuttings or by seed, growing quickly and flowering well from their second summer.
Cistus from cuttings
Taking cuttings gives you the opportunity to grow exact replicas of your favourite cistus – perfect if a prized plant has become bare and leggy with age, or you want a few replacements for any winter casualties.
There are three methods for taking cuttings, depending on the time of year and the space you have available:
- Take softwood cuttings from late spring to early summer, selecting young, healthy, non-flowering shoots. Take care to avoid older, lower sideshoots, which may develop ‘blind’ and be unable to produce new buds. Softwood cuttings root quickly, in around four weeks, and can then be potted and grown on for planting out the same year
- Take semi-ripe cuttings from midsummer to early autumn, rooting these directly into small pots and overwintering in a coldframe or unheated greenhouse. Pot on young, well-rooted cuttings in spring
- If you have a heated greenhouse, you could also consider growing a few plants under cover and taking cuttings in late winter, before new growth starts. These cuttings root quickly come spring, and can be potted on and planted out that summer
Cistus cuttings taken by any method will root more quickly given bottom heat, and all are susceptible to rotting off, so take care to ventilate regularly, and promptly remove any cuttings showing signs of deterioration.
For more information on these techniques, see our handy guides below:
RHS guide to semi-ripe cuttings
RHS guide to softwood cuttings
Cistus from seed
Cistus seeds are very fine and are produced in great numbers. Sow fresh seeds in late summer, or collect and dry whole seed capsules then sow the seeds between late winter and early spring. See our guide to collecting your own seeds.
You can sow them indoors or outside, and germination takes just a few weeks:
- Indoors – sow into a seedtray filled with loam-based seed compost, then cover with a thin layer of vermiculite or sharp sand. Once seedlings have at least four true leaves, prick out and pot on
- Outside – sow into weed-free soil, in a sheltered spot. Thin out the seedlings to leave only the most vigorous
- Water all seedlings carefully, using a can fitted with a fine, upturned rose attachment
With seeds collected from plants that are cultivars, the offspring many not look exactly like the parent. Still, it can be exciting and rewarding to see what the new plants are like.
For more information on growing from seed:
Please be aware that some cistus are protected by Plant Breeder’s Rights, which means you are not allowed to propagate them for sale – check your plant label for details.
Cistus do not suffer from many pests or diseases. More commonly it is unsuitable growing conditions that cause problems. These include:
Frost damage in cold, exposed locations
Over-pampering these shrubs with excessive feeding, watering and soil enrichment can also significantly reduce their lifespan, and result in unattractive, bare, leggy plants.
If your cistus doesn’t seem to be thriving and you are not sure what is wrong, the guides below are a good place to start:
RHS guide to brown leaves on woody plants
Why has my tree or shrub died?
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