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.
Patchouli is known principally for the fragrance of its essential oil. This 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, as a deodorant, and in cosmetics that are said to rejuvenate dry and “mature” skin. In her book Aromatherapy for Dummies (IDG, 1999), Kathi Keville suggests that patchouli oil contains “antiseptic and antifungal” properties for the skin. “In India, it is even a traditional treatment for snakebite and poisonous insect stings,” Keville writes. “The aroma reduces appetite and relieves headaches.” However, use caution as patchouli has also been known to cause a loss of sleep and nervousness. In addition, the oil is so strong that Art Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio warn, in The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave Press, 2000), that “when mixed volume for volume with any other oil, patchouli always predominates.”
Patchouli has culinary and industrial uses, too. The fresh leaves of P. cablin are used as a seasoning. 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 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.
Growth and Cultivation
Thriving outdoors only in the warmest climates, patchouli is root-hardy 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 semi-woody cuttings in the 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 houseplant. It does well in semi-shade 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.
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