Potpourri gathers the sweet scents of summer’s fragrant blossoms, leaves, fruits, and roots and preserves them—via drying or salting—for the dull, dark days of winter. Since at least the time of Shakespeare, country folk and townsfolk alike have known that there is no better antidote to February blues than a scoop of hope from a scent-jar. No wonder potpourri has always made such welcome gifts for showers, weddings, holidays, lovers, dinner guests and convalescents.
There are two kinds of potpourri: moist and dry. Either type will delight your senses. Dry potpourri, the more common of the two, is made from fragrant flowers and leaves, spices, essential oils, and fixatives to preserve the scent. It is easily assembled and set aside to cure. The finished product looks lovely displayed in a bowl or packaged in attractive containers for gifts.
Moist potpourri, which can retain its fragrance longer, even for years, is made mainly from fresh plant material that is allowed to wilt slightly and then layered in a crock with salt, spices, fixatives, and alcohol. It is very aromatic but not much to look at, so it is stored in a closed container and opened up only long enough to scent the air of a room. Both types are aged to allow the individual scents to blend and meld to a smooth finish.
Moist potpourri may be the older form of the art, for the very oldest recipes in my possession, some of which date back to the seventeenth century, are for moist potpourri. Another clue is that the word potpourri itself is derived from two French words that, literally translated, mean “rotted pot,” a reference to the curing process.
But it’s not only the finished product that delights. I find the entire process of researching, designing, blending, preserving, and packaging potpourri enormously satisfying. Try it yourself and see.
Planning the potpourri
For most of us, the main point of potpourri is the scent. Some of us like our scents strong, others prefer them understated, and the same perfume that sends me into raptures can trigger revulsion in someone else. My sister, for example, dislikes the perfume of roses. I once knew a woman who detested the fragrance of lavender; another hated lemon (she associated it with housecleaning). Some people are allergic to certain scents (rose allergies are much more common than is generally realized). When planning a potpourri for a specific person or event such as a wedding, check the scent preferences and sensitivities of the chief players before you start.
When planning dry potpourri, also take into account color preferences. Some people prefer potpourris in understated pastels; I yawned over the mauve and silver potpourri so fashionable until recently in the high-end urban department stores. I like my potpourri to have a lot of different colors in it, like a mixed bouquet of cottage garden flowers. One friend of mine likes his potpourri to match his living room furnishings. Another prefers monochromatic potpourris: all-yellow or all-white mixtures, or mostly so, with only a light sprinkling of a contrasting shade to provide visual interest. You can also have enormous fun, when planning your potpourris, in experimenting with different textures and shapes.
Unless I am designing a potpourri for a specific person or event, I usually plan my potpourris around whatever is growing in my garden that season, and I add purchased ingredients as well. Unfortunately, a lot of delightfully perfumed garden plants, such as hyacinths, sweet violets, most tea roses, and wallflowers, lose their scent completely as they die, or change their scent into something unpleasant (hence Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”). Others, such as the French rose (Rosa gallica), the Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), the incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), and the Florentine iris (Iris ¥germanica var. florentina), can contain high concentrations of essential oils, which can endure a relatively long time in a potpourri. If you use Ponderosa pine gum in a scent-jar, you can be assured that the scent will still be there in six months.
Experience teaches you which plants are keepers and which are not, and there are many books on scent-crafting to guide you. The plants I rely on most heavily for making potpourris are old roses, lavender, scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), the catmints (Nepeta spp.), bee balm (Monarda didyma), sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), the basils (Ocimum spp.), particularly cinnamon and lemon basil, the more exotic sages, particularly Salvia dorisiana, and rosemary. I also frequently purchase citrus fruits, tonka beans, coriander seed, and frankincense for my potpourris.
Adding essential oils to your potpourris can enrich their scents immeasurably, but it is easy to overdo it. Because they can dominate a mixture and overwhelm subtler scents, be particularly cautious when using spice oils (such as oils of cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg), or oils of citrus, neroli (distilled from citrus twigs), evergreens such as pine and balsam fir, ylang ylang, bitter almond, spearmint, peppermint, patchouli, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Add these oils a drop at a time, mixing well and sniffing after each addition.
For floral blends, I depend heavily upon attar of rose and attar of jasmine, which in undiluted form are extremely expensive (1/64 ounce of these oils—about a teaspoon—can cost $45 or more), so buy them in a 10 percent solution with a carrier oil such as jojoba. Less expensive buffers for a rose mixture are oils of rosewood, palmarosa, and rose geranium (though be careful with these, too, as they are assertive and can drown out the sweetness of a rose petal). To add depth to floral blends, try smoky vetiver oil, mysterious labdanum, baby powder-scented oil of orris, comforting balsam of Peru (which is hard to work with, being dark and sticky), or luscious vanilla resin. Oils of gingerroot, lemon verbena, and coriander seed make interesting additions to citrus blends.
If you find inexpensive oils of mimosa, carnation, honeysuckle, orange flower, hyacinth, lilac, or sweet violet, they are almost certainly artificial; these oils are expensive and difficult to find, so only professional perfumers use them.
There is nothing wrong with using artificial fragrance oils in potpourri. Aromatherapists, however, insist that such oils do not have the same benefits as the true oils, and the quality of artificial fragrance oils varies hugely from company to company. An artificial rose oil from Source A may only vaguely resemble an artificial rose oil from Source B, and neither may closely resemble a rose’s true fragrance. Some floral scents seem virtually impossible to duplicate artificially. For example, I have never found an oil of carnation that smelled truly like carnations. But I have found some very good lilac oils, and a lovely Devon violet, though my mother used to complain that artificial violet oil usually smelled like the ladies’ room in Grand Central Station.
Fixatives are materials that prolong the life of a scent. All liquid perfumes include them, and so do the best potpourris, both moist and dry. The most commonly used fixative, best suited to floral or spice mixtures rather than herbaceous ones, is powdered orris root, the rhizome of the Florentine iris. It smells vaguely violet-like. You can buy it already powdered from health-food stores or botanical supply houses, or you can buy it in liquid form as oil of orris. You may also grow the Florentine iris at home—the plant is as hardy as any other bearded iris—but the rhizome gets rock-hard when dry and is difficult to powder using home equipment. Cut it into small dice instead. Other good fixatives include powdered gum benzoin, the best fixative for herbal and lavender blends; powdered frankincense; fresh-scented copal resin; sexy myrrh gum; violet-scented elecampane root; and smoky dried oak moss (which you can powder in a blender).
It is difficult to give a hard-and-fast rule for how much essential oil and fixative to add to a given potpourri, as that depends on the strength of the oils used and whether the fixative is powdered, liquid, or rough-cut. Generally, start with 3 drops of essential oil and 1 rounded teaspoon of fixative for every cup of potpourri to be scented. Ten cups of dry or moist potpourri would therefore require, at the start, 30 drops (slightly less than 1/2 teaspoon) of essential oil and 10 teaspoons of fixative.
It is best to use powdered or liquid fixatives when you can get them, because they can more readily absorb and hold the essential oils you add to them. Add the oils to the fixatives before adding both to the mix. This ensures that the fixative ingredients come into maximum contact with the oils, something you would not be able to control if you simply dumped oils and fixatives into a batch of flowers and mixed them up.
One problem with using powdered fixatives in dry potpourri is that they spread dust through the mixture, which can dull the colors. When you mix and package custom blends for yourself and friends, it’s easy to put the scented fixative powder in a small muslin drawstring bag (usually available where herbal teas are sold) and bury it in the container of dried potpourri. The muslin is tightly woven enough that the fixative powder doesn’t leak out, but it’s not so tightly woven that the scent of the oils captured within it cannot softly infuse and pervade the dried flowers around them. The result is a dry potpourri that keeps its scent for a much longer period than it would otherwise—and there is no unsightly dust to worry about.
To add oils and fixative to moist potpourri, dump the layered salt-and- botanical mixture (see “Moist method tips,” page 47) into a large nonreactive metal bowl and mix thoroughly. Then add your oils and fixatives to the mixture according to the rate given above. Mix it again, pack it back into the crock, replace the plate and brick, press down, and return the crock to its cool, dark spot. Sniff it in a week. If you think it needs more scent, decant the mixture into the bowl again, add oil at the rate of 1 drop per cup of mixture, remix thoroughly, and return it to storage. Repeat at weekly intervals until the scent is the way you like it. Then proceed with curing.
Beginners are tempted to skip the curing period, but if you’ve gone to the expense and trouble of making potpourri from plants you have grown yourself, and carefully added essential oils and fixatives, your creation deserves respectful treatment until its glorious end. Curing is the process of aging the potpourri in a cool, dark place until its separate scents soften and meld into one another.
Potpourri decanted too soon can smell raw and harsh. I have thrown out more than one mixture that might have turned out just fine, had I just cured it longer. For moist potpourris, three months is the minimum; some die-hard traditionalists wait six months to a year before they expose their alchemy to the world’s noses. For dry potpourris, I find one month will suffice, though three months is preferable. You can cure dry potpourri overnight if you must—lots of homemade Christmas potpourris, assembled at the last second, suffer this fate—but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t smell the way you want it to.
Garages, crawl spaces, attics, cellars—even closets and under tables—all make good places to cure your potpourri. I cure my moist potpourri in the same brick-weighted crock it was mixed in, stirring it with my hands or a wooden spoon once a week and checking to make sure it does not dry out completely. If it appears to be heading that way, I add a few tablespoons of vodka or rum to the crock and mix it in thoroughly before replacing the cover. I cure my dry potpourri in airtight plastic or glass containers. As long as the botanicals are thoroughly dry when I set them to cure, it doesn’t matter what size container I use; I have done it in little glass apothecary jars as well as 10-gallon food storage tubs. Stir or shake your curing dry potpourri every day to keep the scents mingling. For both kinds of potpourri, mold is unlikely at this juncture.
How do you tell when a potpourri is done? When you like the way it smells.
Rand B. Lee is author of Pleasures of the Cottage Garden (Freidman/Fairfax, 1998) and President of the North American Cottage Garden Society and the North American Dianthus Society. He lives in Santa Fe with his blind husky-mix, Moon Pie.