Savor your garden’s aromas year-round with your own blend of homemade potpourri
Potpourri gathers the sweet scents of summer’s fragrant blossoms, leaves, fruits, and roots and preserves them — by drying or salting — for the dull, dark days of winter. Since at least the time of Shakespeare, country folk and townsfolk alike have known that there is no better antidote to February blues than a scoop of hope from a scent jar. No wonder potpourri has always made welcome gifts for showers, weddings, holidays, lovers, and dinner guests.
There are two kinds of potpourri: moist and dry. Dry potpourri, the more common of the two, is made from fragrant flowers and leaves, spices, essential oils, and fixatives, which preserve the scent. It’s easy to assemble and set aside to cure. The finished product looks lovely, either displayed in a bowl or packaged in attractive containers for gifts.
Moist potpourri, which can retain its fragrance longer, even for years, is made mainly from fresh plant material that’s allowed to wilt slightly and then layered in a crock with salt, spices, fixatives, and alcohol. It’s very aromatic but not much to look at, so it’s stored in a closed container and opened up only long enough to fill the air of a room with scent. Both types are aged, allowing the individual aromas to blend and meld to a smooth finish.
Moist potpourri may be the older form of the art — the very oldest recipes in my possession, some of which date back to the 17th century, are for moist potpourri. Another clue is that the word potpourri itself is derived from two French words that, literally translated, mean “rotted pot,” a reference to the curing process.
It’s not just the finished product that delights. The entire process of researching, designing, blending, preserving, and packaging potpourri is enormously satisfying. Try it for yourself and see.
For most of us, the main point of potpourri is the scent. Some like their scents strong, and others prefer them understated — the same perfume that sends me into raptures can trigger revulsion in someone else. My sister, for example, dislikes the perfume of roses. I once knew a woman who detested the fragrance of lavender; another hated lemon (she associated it with housecleaning). Some people are allergic to certain scents (rose allergies are much more common than people generally realize). When planning a potpourri for a specific person or an event, such as a wedding, check the scent preferences and sensitivities of the chief recipients before you start.
When planning dry potpourri, also take color preferences into account. Some people prefer potpourris in understated pastels; I yawned over the mauve and silver potpourri once so fashionable in high-end department stores. I like my potpourri to have a lot of different colors in it, such as a mixed bouquet of cottage garden flowers. One friend of mine likes his potpourri to match his living room furnishings. Another prefers monochromatic potpourris: all-yellow or all-white mixtures with only a light sprinkling of a contrasting shade to provide visual interest. Besides experimenting with color, you can also have fun trying different textures and shapes.
Unless I’m designing potpourri for a specific person or event, I usually plan my potpourris around whatever is growing in my garden that season, and I add purchased ingredients as well. Unfortunately, a lot of delightfully perfumed garden plants — such as hyacinths, sweet violets, most tea roses, and wallflowers — lose their scent completely as they die, or their scent changes into something unpleasant. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
Others, such as the French rose (Rosa gallica), the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), the incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), and the Florentine iris (Iris germanica var. florentina), often contain high concentrations of essential oils, which can endure a relatively long time in a potpourri. If you use ponderosa pine gum in a scent jar, you can be assured that the scent will still be there in six months.
Experience will teach you which plants are keepers and which are not, and you can also find many books on scent-crafting to guide you. The plants I rely on most heavily for making potpourris are: old-fashioned roses; lavender; scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.); the catmints (Nepeta spp.); bee balm (Monarda didyma); sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana); the basils (Ocimum spp.); particularly cinnamon and lemon basil; rosemary, and the more exotic sages, particularly Salvia dorisiana. I also frequently purchase citrus fruits, tonka beans, coriander seed, and frankincense for my potpourris.
Adding essential oils to your potpourris can enrich their scents immeasurably, but it’s easy to overdo it. Because they can dominate a mixture and overwhelm subtler scents, be particularly cautious when using spice oils (such as oils of cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg), or oils of citrus, neroli (distilled from citrus twigs), evergreens (such as pine and balsam fir), ylang ylang, bitter almond, spearmint, peppermint, patchouli, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Add these essential oils one drop at a time, mix well, and sniff the mixture after each addition.
For floral blends, I depend heavily upon attar of rose and attar of jasmine, which in undiluted form are extremely expensive (1/64 ounce of these oils — about 1 teaspoon — can cost 45 dollars or more). I buy them in a 10 percent solution with a carrier oil, such as jojoba. Less expensive buffers for a rose mixture are essential oils of rosewood, palmarosa, and rose geranium (though be careful with these, too, as they’re assertive and can drown out the sweetness of a rose petal).
To add depth to floral blends, try smoky vetiver oil, mysterious labdanum, baby-powder-scented oil of orris, luscious vanilla resin, or comforting balsam of Peru (which is hard to work with, as it’s dark and sticky). Oils of ginger root, lemon verbena, and coriander seed make interesting additions to citrus blends.
If you find inexpensive oils of mimosa, carnation, honeysuckle, orange flower, hyacinth, lilac, or sweet violet, they are almost certainly artificial; these oils are expensive and difficult to find, so only professional perfumers use them.
There is nothing wrong with using artificial fragrance oils in potpourri. However, aromatherapists insist that such oils don’t have the same benefits as true oils, and the quality of artificial fragrance oils varies widely from company to company. An artificial rose oil from one source may only vaguely resemble an artificial rose oil from another source, and neither may closely resemble a rose’s true fragrance. Some floral scents seem virtually impossible to duplicate artificially. For example, I have never found an oil of carnation that truly smelled like carnations. I have found some very good lilac oils and a lovely Devon violet, though my mother used to complain that artificial violet oil usually smelled like the ladies’ room in Grand Central Station.
Fixatives are materials that prolong the life of a scent. All liquid perfumes include them, and so do the best potpourris, both moist and dry. The most commonly used fixative, best suited to floral or spice mixtures rather than herbaceous ones, is powdered orris root, the rhizome of the Florentine iris. It smells vaguely violet-like. You can buy it already powdered from health food stores or botanical supply houses, or you can buy it in liquid form as oil of orris. You may also grow the Florentine iris at home — the plant is as hardy as any other bearded iris, but the rhizome gets rock-hard when dry and is difficult to powder using home equipment. If you grow your own, try cutting it into a small dice instead. Other good fixatives include powdered gum benzoin, which is the best fixative for herbal and lavender blends; powdered frankincense; fresh-scented copal resin; smoky myrrh gum; violet-scented elecampane root; and smoky dried oak moss, which you can powder in a blender.
It’s difficult to give a hard-and-fast rule for how much essential oil and fixative to add to a given potpourri, as the amount should depend on the strength of the oils used and whether the fixative is powdered, liquid, or rough-cut. Generally, start with 3 drops of essential oil and 1 rounded teaspoon of fixative for every cup of potpourri to be scented. Therefore, 10 cups of dry or moist potpourri would require, at the start, 30 drops (slightly less than 1⁄2 teaspoon) of essential oil and 10 teaspoons of fixative.
It’s best to use powdered or liquid fixatives because they can more readily absorb and hold the essential oils you add to them. Add the oils to the fixatives before adding both to the mix. This will ensure that the fixative ingredients come into maximum contact with the oils, something you wouldn’t be able to control if you simply dumped oils and fixatives into a batch of flowers and mixed them up.
One problem with using powdered fixatives in dry potpourri is that they spread dust through the mixture, which can dull the colors. When you mix and package custom blends for yourself and friends, put the scented fixative powder in a small muslin drawstring bag (usually available where herbal teas are sold) and bury it in the container of dried potpourri. The muslin is tightly woven enough that the fixative powder won’t leak out, but it’s not so tightly woven that the scent of the oils captured within won’t be able to softly infuse and pervade the dried flowers around them. The result will be a dry potpourri that keeps its scent for a much longer period than it would otherwise — with no unsightly dust to worry about.
To add oils and fixative to moist potpourri, dump the layered salt-and-botanical mixture (which you can make according to the “Moist Method” explained later) into a large nonreactive metal bowl and mix thoroughly. Then, add your oils and fixatives to the mixture according to the rate given above. Mix it again, pack it back into the crock, replace the plate and brick, press down, and return the crock to its cool, dark spot. Sniff the potpourri in a week. If you think it needs more scent, decant the mixture into the bowl again, add oil at the rate of 1 drop per cup of mixture, remix thoroughly, and return it to storage. Repeat at weekly intervals until it smells good to you. Then, proceed with curing.
Beginners are sometimes tempted to skip the curing period, but if you’ve gone to the expense and trouble of making potpourri from plants you’ve grown yourself and have meticulously added essential oils and fixatives, your creation deserves careful treatment until the end. Curing is the process of aging the potpourri in a cool, dark place until its separate scents soften and meld into one another.
Potpourri decanted too soon can smell raw and harsh. I’ve thrown out more than one mixture that might have turned out just fine if I’d just cured it longer. For moist potpourris, three months is the minimum curing time, though some die-hard traditionalists wait six months to a year. For dry potpourris, I find one month will suffice, though three months is preferable. You can cure dry potpourri overnight if you must — lots of homemade Christmas potpourris, assembled at the last second, suffer this fate — but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t smell the way you want it to.
You can cure potpourri in garages, crawl spaces, attics, cellars, closets, or even under tables. I cure my moist potpourri in the same brick-weighted crock it was mixed in, stirring it with my hands or a wooden spoon once a week and checking to make sure it doesn’t dry out completely. If it appears to be heading that way, I add a few tablespoons of vodka or rum to the crock and mix it in thoroughly before replacing the cover. I cure my dry potpourri in airtight plastic or glass containers. As long as the botanicals are thoroughly dry when I set them to cure, it doesn’t matter what size container I use; I’ve used small glass apothecary jars as well as 10-gallon food-storage tubs. Stir or shake your curing dry potpourri every day to keep the scents mingling. For both kinds of potpourri, mold is unlikely to develop at this point in the process. How will you know when a potpourri is done? When you like the way it smells.
After curing is completed, your potpourri will be ready to decant into a decorative container. Finding just the right container for your custom potpourri can be as much fun as making the potpourri itself.
The ideal potpourri container should be airtight, or at least tightly covered. It should have a pleasing color and finish, but in the case of dry mixtures, not so colorful that it detracts from the potpourri. Moist potpourris work well in tightly lidded decorative china jars. In Europe, you can buy china jars made with perforated inner lids that allow the scent to escape when the solid outer cover is raised or removed.
China jars are traditional, but I’ve seen potpourri effectively presented in stone, wood, leather, copper, and pierced tin boxes, apothecary jars, baskets, gravy boats, bird baths, vases, teacups, votive candleholders, and cachepots. I’ve found delightful containers at yard sales, flea markets, craft stores, and discount stores.
As you collect flowers and leaves, spread them out to dry, away from the sun, on old window screens or window frames with muslin stretched over them. Attics, closets, cellars, or laundry areas are good choices for drying rooms. If you have no space indoors and no shaded area outdoors, you can create your own shade by using shade cloth purchased from a local garden center or by stringing an old sheet over a clothesline. Place screens underneath. You may also bundle sprigs and hang them from collapsible wooden clothes racks. Tying paper bags around the sprigs will keep the drying flowers or leaves from falling off the stalks. When the plants are thoroughly dried (crisp, not leathery, which may take only a few days in a dry climate and up to several weeks in a humid climate), remove them carefully from their stalks and place them in paper bags, if you haven’t done so already. Place each ingredient in a separate bag. Staple or tie the bags shut and store them in a dry spot until you’re ready to proceed.
*Note: Plastic containers may absorb potpourri odor, so choose one that you’ll use only for potpourri and not for food.
Some people shy away from brightly hued floral-scented mixtures, so I invented this dark, rather mysterious blend particularly for men or for those not fond of strong floral scents. Look for the ingredients in health food stores. Yield: 7 1/2 cups.
A toiletry recipe in The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, published in 1846, inspired this concoction. Yield: 17 cups.
Wait for a dry day before gathering leaves and flowers. If they’re damp from dew or rain or bruised in some way, mold may develop. If you can only collect a few at a time, sprinkle a little salt and alcohol over them until you accumulate enough flowers and leaves for a full batch. Add more alcohol and salt as you gather more material. If any mold develops, throw the whole mixture away and start over. (Don’t throw the mixture into your compost pile; salt isn’t friendly to the microorganisms there.) When you run out of botanicals to add to the crock, place a heavy plate — big enough to fit inside the crock opening without leaving much room around the edge — on top of the salted mass and press down firmly, compacting the layers. Then, weight the plate with a clean brick. Place the crock, plate, and brick in a cool, shaded spot. Every week or so, check the crock and pour off any liquid that has accumulated at the bottom. Don’t throw this liquid away; store it in a tightly stoppered glass container in the fridge and add 1 or 2 cups of it to the water every time you take a bath. It will refresh and perfume your skin delightfully.
Adjust this recipe based on the amount of botanicals you pull from your garden. Use a combination of the flowers and leaves listed below to create the “flower pickle,” and then add the remaining ingredients in amounts suited to the amount of flower pickle you’ve created.
For every 4 cups of flower pickle, set aside:
Gather as many highly scented roses as you can.
Layer in a crock with a 1-inch layer of salt, sprinkle with enough rum or vodka to barely moisten the surface (1 to 3 tablespoons), and, as they come into season, add lavender flowers, rose geranium leaves, cinnamon basil leaves, and sweet marjoram leaves (be sure to use Origanum majorana, not oregano) until you have about 3 inches of fresh, fragrant flower petals.
Follow with another layer of salt, vodka, and another layer of botanicals, and then add layers of salt and alcohol until the crock is full.
When you’ve filled the crock, turn the salted mass out into a large mixing bowl.
Add vanilla bean, nutmeg, oleoresin of vanilla or balsam of Peru (both are dark and sticky and drip out in blobs), and the remaining essential oils to the flower pickle.
Mix thoroughly and repack into the crock for curing.
Place a heavy plate (big enough to fit inside the crock opening without leaving much room around the edge) on top of the salted mass and press down firmly, compacting the layers. Then, weight the plate with a clean brick and set the crock in a cool, shaded place.
Stir periodically, pouring off any liquid that’s collected at the bottom of the crock, and check the scent after the first month and every month thereafter. If the scent is too weak, add just a few drops of any of the above essential oils and mix thoroughly.
Set it aside to cure for another month.
When it smells the way you want it to, scoop it into presentation containers and enjoy.
The scent should last for many years, but if it seems to lag, sprinkle a little brandy over it and mix to revive.
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