From late spring through early autumn, I gather materials for my potpourri, challenging myself to vary both its scent and its appearance from year to year. I’m always on the lookout for bright clusters of berries, variegated leaves, pretty seedpods and interesting calyxes that I’ve never used before. I include roses and lavender every year, along with sprigs of balsam fir or pine needles saved from the previous year’s Christmas tree. The kitchen yields wonderful fragrances from the spice rack as well as citrus peels for color, texture and scent, and rose hips, which I string into colorful garlands to drape around the rim of the potpourri bowl.
Setting a mood
I enjoy creating a holiday blend that not only looks beautiful but has a fragrance that contributes some subtle aromatherapy during this busy season. The physiological effects of scent are becoming more widely appreciated as more studies document them, but everyone knows that fragrance, like good food and jingle bells, is an important part of the holiday spirit.
Carefully chosen combinations of herbs and flowers can calm the nerves, ease stress, stimulate the mind, and invigorate the senses. In this year’s blend I’ve included lavender, rose, and pine for their relaxing effects; clove, citrus and cinnamon to ease anxiety, and rosemary, basil, clove, cinnamon, peppermint and citrus for their energizing scents. Many herbal fragrances have been used over the years as mood enhancers and some herbs have several effects. Whatever its ingredients, the effects of inhaling a potpourri fragrance are not dramatic, but simply and gently uplifting. See the list above for scents that relax and energize.
In each potpourri I like to use several fixatives—substances that not only help preserve other scents, but often carry their own fragrance. I grow many of them in my midwestern garden: angelica, calamus, wild ginger and orris roots; clary sage, sweet woodruff, and patchouli leaves; and Queen-Anne’s-lace seed. I purchase others such as benzoin.
My holiday blend is determined by what’s available or abundant, what I can afford, what’s beautiful, and what fragrances I especially enjoy. Potpourri blending is a personal craft, and the recipe given above is infinitely adaptable.
I use small, hard, beadlike botanicals such as rose hips and hawthorn berries only in garlands, not loose in my Christmas potpourris, for fear that visiting babies and toddlers might choke on them. I also avoid toxic materials such as sweet, vanilla-scented tonka beans, holly and bittersweet berries, and mistletoe. The beautiful red berries of smooth and staghorn sumacs are not toxic and are tiny enough to be relatively safe to use.
Violet-scented orris root is a favorite fixative of mine, but I don’t use it in Christmas potpourris because many people are allergic to it. Beautiful painted daisy flowers and rue leaves can cause a severe, long-lasting rash. I also avoid using aromatic cedar chips, a valuable fixative and moth repellent, because I’m allergic to them myself. I like to be able to run my fingers through the potpourri, as Victorian women did, to release more scent and to experience the feel of it.
Making a holiday blend
To prevent spoilage, use only completely dried plant material that snaps or crumbles between your fingers. If you have sensitive skin, wear protective gloves when combining ingredients. Use only glass or stainless steel measuring cups and spoons; a glass, ceramic, enamel or stainless steel bowl; and widemouthed glass jars with tight-fitting lids. Plastic or aluminum can react with the herbs and oils and actually alter the fragrances. The following lists detail herbs in two major categories to get you started on crafting your own blends.