Before the Victorians, if you wanted to make something smell good, you had to use the aromatic parts of a plant or an animal. Nowadays there are artificial equivalents of just about any scent you can think of. This is lucky for the musk deer, civet cats, beavers, and whales we used to maim or slaughter by the thousands in pursuit of heaven’s odors, but it’s less fortunate for those of us who get headaches when we merely walk past the scented candle rack in the neighborhood supermarket.
Nowhere is the difference between natural and artificial perfumes more apparent than in the art of potpourri-making. If you’re familiar only with artificial potpourris—those concoctions of dyed, petroleum-sprayed wood chips and freeze-dried fruit slices, natural potpourris may seem weak and evanescent. (Our modern supermarket potpourris would have delighted the raucous Elizabethans, who used to decorate their gardens with animal bones and bottle glass.)
But a boudoir scented with dried damask roses, white lavandin, and crushed clove buds compares to one scented by artificial strawberry-sprayed wood chips as the generous melding of old, fond lovers to the first fumbles of adolescent romance. For the home gardener, who can grow his or her own potpourri fixings, the rituals of cultivar selection, growing, nurturing, bloom harvesting, mixing, curing, and presentation can become a kind of spiritual practice, a sublime alchemy. What are you waiting for?
Potpourri in a nutshell
The word potpourri (pronounced POE-poor-ree) comes into English from the French. Literally translated, it means “rotted pot,” a reference to the moist method of potpourri-making in which fresh aromatic botanicals are mixed with salt and spices and transformed into a kind of perfumed compost. Moist potpourris are not often made today, and I’ve never seen them marketed, despite the fact that a properly concocted and maintained moist mixture can retain its fragrance for years. But moist potpourris take longer to make than dry ones. In moist potpourri, scent is everything and visual appeal is beside the point: nothing scentless, however pretty, goes into them.
Dry potpourris, on the other hand, are relatively simple to create and display. Anything that retains its color when dried is fair game. One of my most successful blends was fashioned of white lavender buds, dried orange peel, shredded oak moss, pink rosebuds, and dozens and dozens of dried, pressed daffodil flowers saved from the previous spring.
Planning the potpourri garden
If you want to make potpourri from things you grow in your garden, almost any size yard will yield enough flowers and leaves for a scent jar or two. You can raise a good crop of scented pelargoniums in a sunny windowsill, and even a small patio can support a potted rose or two.
But to do the job properly, by which I mean to do the job with the single-minded fanaticism true potpourri nuts bring to their hobby, you will need the largest, sunniest garden you can find, since most potpourri plants require at least six hours of strong light in order to develop their best colors and essential oils. This is particularly critical for roses and lavender, the backbone of all traditional potpourri gardens.
The soil in this ideal garden should be rich and well-drained, with plenty of well-rotted, pulverized organic matter dug in. For those of you laboring in clay pits, as I do, add coarse sand or pea gravel by the bucket-load. You should also plan on adding horticultural lime if your soil has a low pH; lavenders and most other Mediterranean aromatics require neutral to alkaline conditions.
If, like me, you have neither unlimited funds nor unlimited garden space, you will want to consider the following when selecting your potpourri garden plants:
1. their beauty in the garden;
2. their suitability for your climate;
3. how well they retain their fragrance or color when processed;
4. how important the particular plant is to the project you are planning.
Remember that fresh botanicals lose half their volume when dried, so if you need a cup of dried rosebuds, you will have to grow enough roses to yield two cups of fresh.
My great regret is that I do not have room for more roses. When you select cultivars, bear in mind that tea roses, however perfumed, tend to lose their fragrance when rotted or dried. Unless you want the petals just for color, stick with the old roses, particularly the Gallicas and Damasks.
The single best rose to dry for scented petals is the French or apothecary rose, Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’. This rose has been cultivated in the Near East since ancient times. It was brought to France probably from Damascus sometime in the thirteenth century, for its first appearance in art is on a Belgian altarpiece dating from about 1430. Also known as the Red Rose of Lancaster (partner to R. ¥alba ‘Semiplena’, the White Rose of York), this rose makes a spreading, suckering shrub about 5 feet tall and wide. In spring it bears many-petaled, light red blossoms of moderate scent. As the petals dry (out of the light and with tender care) their perfume strengthens rather than fades.
The Damascus or damask roses, Rosa ¥damascena, are as old in gardens as the gallicas, and for centuries they were the roses used by the rose-attar distillation industry. These roses are natural hybrids between some primordial alba rose and the musk rose, R. Moschata. One of the most fragrant is Rosa ¥damascena ‘Trigintipetala’, the rose of Kazanlik. Hardy and disease-free, this shrub reaches a height of 6 feet, bearing profuse, deep pink, many-petaled, deliciously scented blossoms in the spring.
‘La Ville de Bruxeles’, a damask dating from 1849, is another beauty, and one of the best old roses for general garden use. The upright, 5-foot autumn damask, Rosa ¥damascena ‘Bifera’, is the oldest repeat-flowering rose known to the West. Commonly known as Quatre Saisons, or the Four Seasons rose, it bears richly aromatic, doubled, clear pink flowers superb for potpourri. It blooms in spring and again lightly throughout the fall.
When choosing roses for color, be aware that as rose petals dry, their colors mute and darken. The pale pink flowers of ‘New Dawn’ change to mid-pink; the screaming orange of ‘Tropicana’ (also called ‘Super Star’) fades to mid-orange; and the velvet red of ‘Mister Lincoln’ darkens to very nearly black.
The most difficult rose colors to dry are the whites, creams, and yellows. Whites tend to brown, and while some yellow roses dry beautifully to gold, many that I have tried turn to so many cornflakes. The notable exceptions are the yellow Austrian briar, Rosa foetida, and her offspring: R. foetida ‘Persiana’ (the Persian double yellow rose) and R. foetida ‘Bicolor’ (called the Austrian copper briar), which is tomato-red on the top of its petals and buff-yellow on the reverse side. R.f. ‘Bicolor’, which is planted often in Santa Fe where I live, is a particularly nice addition to dry potpourris. Although its troubling, sexual, sweaty scent is lost upon drying, its tomato-red darkens to brilliant geranium, and its buff to a lovely old gold.
Lavenders for drying
My second favorite class of potpourri plants is the lavenders. I love Lavandula angustifolia ‘Royal Velvet’, which gets about 3 feet high in bloom, boasts spikes of deep purple rather than the standard, paler lavender, and which keep its color when dried. The 18-inch ‘Twickel Purple’, one of the oldest English lavenders still in commerce, has dark purple flowers, too, and a distinctive habit. Its flower spikes fan out charmingly around the plant, like a ballerina’s tutu.
I also love the white-flowered lavenders. L. angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’ is compact, only 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall in bloom, but it makes a cunning little border for a damask rose bed. When grown in well-drained, dry soil, it is hardy to Zone 5.
The silver-leaved, long-flowering white lavandin (L. ¥intermedia ‘White Spike’) makes a superb 3-foot specimen shrub. Like most lavandins, which are hybrids of English lavender (L. angustifolia) and L. latifolia, a Mediterranean relative, ‘White Spike’ is slightly less frost-hardy than its English parent. It overwinters most reliably in Zone 6 and above (though a well-drained site against a warm, south-facing wall, protection from cold winds, and a heavy mulch with lava rock has seen more than one lavandin through a Zone 5 winter).
The third class of potpourri plants I couldn’t live without is the scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.). They all hail from South Africa, and none (that I know of) are hardy below Zone 8; but all overwinter nicely in a sunny window. Most are easy to propagate from cuttings, so you never have to be without your favorites.
The range of scents available in these plants is perhaps not quite as broad as nursery salespeople would have us believe, but it is impressive enough: cinnamon, ginger ale, lime, peppermint, balsam, pine, lemon, peach, strawberry, incense, and of course, rose. There is even a pelargonium that is supposed to smell like peanut butter. If the young leaves are plucked in the early morning, and dried out of the sunlight, they keep their scent well; and because some cultivars can grow into bushes 4 feet around, the sheer quantity of scented material produced over a single season by a single plant can be prodigious.
Most scented geraniums do quite well in partial shade. Some of them—such as the peppermint geranium (P. tomentosum)—prefer it.
A Small Potpourri Garden
Other potpourri plants
I am also extraordinarily fond of the bee balms (Monarda spp.). My current favorite is the long-blooming, clear rose-pink ‘Marshall’s Delight’, which has proved absolutely mildew-proof in my dry, mildew-rampant garden. Its foliage is, for me, dark matte-green, not the yellowish-green the catalogs so often claim. It seems as well-adapted to the alkaline soils of the Southwest as it is to the acidic soils of the Northeast. And its scent is refreshingly resinous, with a hint of wine and cedar.
‘Jacob Kline’, which bears huge red flower heads, is another highly mildew-resistant cultivar; and though I have never grown it (its disease resistance is unknown), there exists a rose-scented bee balm that I am dying to try.
I had never heard of the hummingbird mints (Agastache spp.) until I moved to Santa Fe. I love the narrow-leaved, gray-green, airy-spiked Southwest agastaches, which smell like mint and bubble gum and come in a range of lovely and surprising warm colors. Agastache ‘Firebird’ blooms orange-red; ‘Pink Panther’, coral pink; ‘Tutti-Frutti’, raspberry-purple; and ‘Desert Sunrise’, a new introduction from Santa Fe’s own High Country Gardens, blooms in pink, orange, and lavender. Though of variable hardiness (anywhere from Zone 5 through 7), the desert agastaches are easy to propagate, so by all means try them.
I am also fond of the big, lolloping, 3- to 4-foot-high scented salvias. The green, upright branches of the pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) can smell of pineapple, melon, or peach, depending on the cultivar, and its long thin blossoms come in red or salmon. Salvia guaranitica has exquisite blue blossoms and smells of thyme and cedar.
Salvia dorisiana, however, is far and away my favorite. For some reason it has become difficult to find in commerce, yet it is a true culinary sage, with beautiful, downy, round, scalloped leaves deliciously scented of fruit and big pink flowers rather sparsely carried. Like the scented geraniums, these sages are only hardy to about Zone 8, but you can keep them going from cuttings.
In this article, as in my garden, I have run out of space for all the potpourri plants I treasure. For a few more suggestions, see page 22. Do not, by any means, confine yourself to my favorites. If homemade potpourri is to be memorable, it must reflect the private passions of the potpourri maker. So must the potpourri garden.
Rand B. Lee is author of Pleasures of the Cottage Garden (Friedman/Fairfax Publishing, 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. He’ll write about making potpourri this summer in The Herb Companion.