Carolee's Herb Farm

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Patchouli Print E-mail
A tropical plant with an earthy, woodsy fragrance, patchouli loves a warm, humid, partly shaded environment, and will drop its leaves in cool temperatures. In its native areas of Indonesia, Malaysia, and China, patchouli has been cultivated in fields for centuries for use as a perfume, aphrodisiac, and moth repellent. In India, patchouli leaves were packed with fabric and woven items for protection from insect damage. Whether by camel caravan or clipper ship, the crates arrived at their destinations redolent of the fragrance. The scent lasted for months afterwards, and was often the factor that signified that the shawls or fabrics truly came from that foreign land. Eventually, cheap local mills doused their copies in patchouli oil, hoping to fool their customers and claim the higher price that authentic fabrics could garner.

While there are many, many species of patchouli, Pogostemon cablin is the plant most commonly known as “true” patchouli. It has glossy, olive-green egg-shaped leaves with toothed edges. The plant has square stems, reminding one that is a member of the same family as mint. The scent of the fresh leaves is not as strong as the essential oil. However, leaves can be carefully dried, and the scent will improve with age. The leaves are often used as a fixative, helping hold the scent of other oils added to potpourris and moth repellent mixtures. The leaves have an earthy, slightly balsam scent that blends well with rose petals for the linen closet. Patchouli has always been linked with romance, so it is often an ingredient in love potions and mixtures for a romantic evening.

The essential oil is made after the leaves have been fermented, which produces an extremely strong, long-lasting scent. Essential oil of patchouli is a common ingredient in both soap and candles. Historically, the oil has been used in ink, beverages, candies, chewing gum, and in the famous breath-freshener “Sen-Sen”. It is also an ingredient in some cigarettes. Aromatherapists use the oil for stress and stress-related problems. The oil has also been used for many skin problems such as open pores, acne, eczema, cracked skin, and wrinkles. Most of the oil imported into the United States comes from Indonesia. Many people find the scent of patchouli oil overpowering, but a high quality oil can be surprisingly light and not cloying at all.

The home gardener must grow this temperature sensitive perennial as an annual, or plan to bring it into a warm greenhouse or home before the temperatures drop into the upper 40’s. It prefers temperatures above 65 degrees F. Patchouli will grow best in slightly moist, very rich soils. Continual fertilization will provide large, healthy leaves and good growth. It can succumb to heat stress if grown in full sun during the hottest, longest days of high summer, which can cause the leaves to dry out. It is best kept in pots that can be moved into light shade. Patchouli produces an insignificant flower, which should be pinched off, so the energy can go to leaf production. Patchouli is propagated by cuttings, which root quite easily.

With a happy plant, or several plants, one can harvest the larger leaves. They can be easily dried by spreading them in a single layer on a screen, in a well-ventilated space out of direct sunlight . Once the leaves are completely dried, they can be added to potpourri, or ground to use in incense. Patchouli has been used for thousands of years as an incense ingredient.

Making incense is a simple process that man has been doing since the Stone Age. In many cultures, the process has become a daily ritual, or one that is performed on special holidays or events. Incense burning produces aromatic smoke that can stimulate or calm the senses. Incense is often burned to purify the air, eliminate evil spirits, or purify a person before undertaking a challenging task. Incense can be a single plant, or a combination of many plants and resins.

A simple recipe for beginners is this basic Patchouli Incense: Thoroughly mash ¼ c. fresh patchouli leaves (or use 1/8 c. dried leaves with just enough distilled water to cover, allow to stand overnight, drain off any excess water) in a mortar & pestle (or food processor). Add ¼ c. rose petals and continue mashing and mixing until mixture forms a paste. Add 1 T. powdered orris root and 1 T. powdered gum benzoin. Mix thoroughly, adding a few drops of rosewater or distilled water if needed to form a paste. Shape into “pennies” or small cones with a base the size of a dime and 1” tall. Place on waxed paper and allow to completely dry, turning occasionally. This will take 4-5 days. If a stronger fragrance is desired, essential oil of patchouli can replace rosewater or distilled water. Patchouli incense has the reputation of enhancing romance.

The basic incense recipe can be used for many other herbs or combinations. Some other herbs to try include: Bay leaves, juniper berries, lemon balm, lovage, rosemary, sage, santolina, southernwood, marjoram, thyme, frankincense, myrrh, tansy, scented geraniums, mints, or basils. The orris root helps preserve the fragrance of incense that is not used immediately. The benzoin is a resin that helps bind the other ingredients together, but also adds a fragrance that is uplifting.

Many people find the incense made with pure ingredients at home is more appealing, and does not produce headaches or other unpleasantness that purchased incense may cause. Often, incense sold in stores contains synthetic preservatives or chemical fragrances that can create sharp, bitter, or unpleasant additions.

Experiment with the herbs in your garden, and enjoy the calming ritual that burning incense can bring to hectic lives, as well as the aromatherapy that incense provides.