Herb To Know: Patchouli

Learn about what this earthy plant can offer you in the kitchen, bathroom, and more.

| February/March 2002

  • Patchouli Pogostemon cablin or P. heyneanus poh-GAH-steh-mahn kab-LINN or hay-KNEE-ay-nus Family Lamiaceae (Labiatae) Herbaceous perennial Grows 11/2 to 3 feet tall Native of tropical Asia Hardy in Zones 11 and 12

Some call it “earthy,” others call it “stinky,” but either way, the patchouli plant holds many therapeutic properties and garden opportunities. This mint relative, however, is not well known in temperate North America (although it has been grown here since at least 1900). Two species of patchouli, Pogostemon cablin (known as the true form) and P. heyneanus (a substitute), have become more common in catalogs and herb nurseries over the years.

The scent of patchouli oil seems to require a certain appreciation of its deep, woody aroma, but even those who don’t care for the fragrance of the oil may find the scent of the fresh leaves to be quite pleasant. The scent of the leaves is far subtler than the essential oil.

The genus Pogostemon consists of some thirty to forty 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 that 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.


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