Desert plants protect their beauty with thorny spines and bitter leather. Fierce and unapproachable or sometimes just nondescript, these plants hold back until the spring’s warmth or monsoon rains break all restraint and carpet the desert in glory and flower, the air thick with perfume. Cliffrose is no different. Rather unnoticeable most of the year, in May this leathery leaved desert shrub cloaks head to toe in beautifully fragrant blooms.
Purshia mexicana (var. stansburiana) – aka cliffrose – is an incredible plant, made (slightly) famous by Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It prefers hot, dry, alkaline cliffs, lives happily on less than 12” precipitation a year, feeds elk, pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep in the coldest months, provides ample seed for stash-happy pack rats and fixes nitrogen into the poorest of soils. But most of all, come spring, it erupts into ecstatic blossom, scenting the desert with the most delicious perfume reminiscent of orange flowers, wild rose, honey and cream.
The leaves of cliffrose are equally compelling. With a spicy fragrance somewhere between desert dust, rock rose, jasmine, orange peels and sagebrush, these deep green, water conserving leaves provide an amazing olfactory counterpart to the creamy sweetness of its flowers.
The delicate scent of cliffrose blossoms, like many precious florals, is lost in distillation. We use maceration and enfleurage to capture their perfume for later blending, pressing baskets of fresh flowers into jojoba and coconut oils and replacing these flowers every few days when the scent has transferred into the carrier oil. A good flower harvest can only happen when the land has had ample rain during the time of heaviest bloom, making this perfume as rare and beautiful as the desert in bloom.
Extracting scent from cliffrose leaves is a little less laborious. We carefully prune plants on private land in fall and late winter, helping to remove weather stressed branches and encourage healthy growth. Once brittle and dry, we crush the leaves and make sun infusions. Both flower and leaf extractions are combined in our Cliffrose Leaf + Petal Beauty Oil, and blended with other botanical notes to help this desert perfume bloom and last on your skin.
In addition to desert perfume, cliffrose has many other traditional uses in the Southwest. Its shredded softened bark makes fine sleeping mats, cradle blankets, baby diapers and shoe liners. The fragrant, bitter leaves are excellent infused as an antiseptic skin wash, especially useful for abrasions. A tan dye can be made from the stems and leaves in combination with juniper, and its wood has long been used for arrows and prayer sticks.
Next time you are passing through the Great Basin area or western New Mexico in springtime, take a back road, pull over, and smell the wind. Cliffrose is best smelled in the wild empty sparseness of its desert home. Just follow your nose.