Scented Treasures: A Potpourri Garden

A potpourri garden yields fragrance and color twice over.

| December/January 2000

  • Photography by Anybody Goes

  • The red petals from ‘Comte de Chambord’ roses and the buds of Rosa ¥centifolia and lavender combine with flowers from calendula, marigold, rosemary, sweet marjoram, and white larkspur to produce a dried potpourri that’s subtle in scent, but lavish in color.

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.

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