Sage, rosemary, and thyme (but not parsley): despite their differences in looks and taste, all of these kitchen favorites are members of the mint family, Lamiaceae (Labiatae), as are dozens of other herbs around the world. One mint relative that’s not so well known in temperate North America (though it has been grown here at least since 1900) is patchouli, two species of which (Pogostemon cablin and P. heyneanus) are increasingly seen in the catalogs of herb nurseries these days.
The genus Pogostemon consists of some 30 or 40 species of shrubs, subshrubs, and herbaceous plants native to tropical Asia. The name means “bearded thread” in Greek and refers to the hairy middles of the four stamens. Other characteristics of the genus include flowers in whorls in the upper leaf axils; a tubular, five-toothed calyx; a tubular corolla with four nearly equal lobes, and one style with two stigmas. The fruits are four seedlike nutlets.
The name patchouli comes from a Tamil word, paccilai, meaning “green leaf”. An alternate common name seen in some older references is pucha-pat.
The species of patchouli commonly available in the United States are P. cablin and P. heyneanus, also known as P. patchouli or P. patchouly. The latter is sometimes known as smooth or Java patchouli. Both are shrubby plants which may grow 3 feet tall under optimal conditions. The green leaves are roughly egg-shaped, up to 4 inches long, deeply veined, and notched. Flowers of P. cablin are white, while those of P. heyneanus are tinged with purplish pink. They have little fragrance.
Patchouli is known principally for the fragrance of its essential oil. As one writer has rhapsodized, “Fine patchouli has a winelike, ethereal quality, deep and woody, spicy, almost dry and earthy.” Even those who don’t care for the fragrance of the oil may find the scent of the fresh leaves quite pleasant.
Patchouli oil is used extensively in the perfume industry. Major producers include China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Brazil, and the Seychelles. The oil is steam-distilled from the leaves and stems, which are harvested two to three times a year, and the quality of the oil is better if the dried leaves are aged before distillation.
Other herbal fragrances that are sometimes blended with patchouli include basil, bergamot, geranium, juniper, lavender, myrrh, neroli, pine, sandalwood, and rose. Commercial perfumes that contain patchouli include Tabu, Bill Blass, and Polo.
Patchouli is frequently used in soaps and cosmetics that are said to rejuvenate dry and “mature” skin. It works as a deodorant by masking body odor. Both the oil and the dried leaves are used in potpourri, the leaves adding a distinctive texture as well as fragrance to the mixture. The oil is thought to have fixative properties and is believed to improve with age.
Patchouli is not widely used as a medicinal herb; its use may cause loss of appetite or sleep and “nervous attacks”. Still, some Eastern cultures esteem it as a prophylactic. Aromatherapists consider patchouli an aphrodisiac based on the widely held belief that the odor stimulates the pituitary gland to release endorphins, chemicals that kill pain and promote euphoria as well as sexual feelings. They recommend patchouli for external use to treat anxiety, at least in small doses; too much can be sedative.
Patchouli has culinary and industrial uses, too. The fresh leaves of P. cablin are used as a seasoning, and the dried leaves of P. heyneanus (the less fragrant of the two species) flavor an alcoholic beverage. The oil of P. cablin flavors chewing gum, baked goods, and candy, and that of P. heyneanus has been used in India ink.
Cashmere shawls imported into France during Napoleon’s reign were packed in boxes filled with dried patchouli herb to repel insects. European copies of the shawls failed to sell until manufacturers realized that the exotic scent was part of the shawls’ attraction. Cotton balls saturated with patchouli oil and placed among stored clothing can substitute for the dried leaves as a moth repellent. Mixing equal parts of dried patchouli leaves and finely ground dried pyrethrum flowers (which have no aroma) may increase the repellent’s effectiveness. Patchouli oil has also been used to repel silverfish and bookworms from books.
Although Liberty Hyde Bailey declared (of P. heyneanus) that the plant has no ornamental value, many herb gardeners feel otherwise. Thriving outdoors only in the warmest climates, it is root-hardy only in subtropical Florida and Texas; in most of the United States, patchouli must be treated as a very tender perennial or an annual. It may be propagated by rooting semiwoody cuttings in fall or winter, from seed sown indoors in late winter or spring, or grown from purchased, rooted plants.
Patchouli grows best in full sun or part shade. In northern states, it may be best to grow patchouli as a house plant. It does well in semishade on a windowsill or under fluorescent lights near the ends of the tubes. Use a commercial soilless mix or prepare your own from equal parts of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite with a teaspoon or two of lime added to give a pH of about 7. Keep the soil moist. Patchouli plants grow fast; check frequently and transplant to larger pots as needed. Pinch the branch tips to promote further branching.
You may find the fragrance of the plant a little strong in close quarters, especially at night. On the other hand, some growers find that plants grown in shade or cloudy weather have little odor.