Potpourri: Then and now
A long time before modern chemical and electrical air fresheners, bouquets of fragrant herbs, spices and flowers were used to revitalize the household atmosphere. They have a recorded history of over 6000 years. Originally extracts and incense were used for religious rituals and ceremonies. Following those years, the nobility and the wealthy began to indulge. The Roman emperors used them in festivals and sporting events. The Romans, of course, are the ones who indulged in public bathing and they had elaborate bath houses where people had aromatic oils massaged into their bodies, their hair and their beards.
By the Middle Ages in Europe, bathing became rare. Houses had little or no plumbing, and public bathing was condemned as immoral by the religious community. There was very poor ventilation in buildings and homes. In order to combat odors in castles and banquet halls, fragrant herbs were strewn on the ground so that they could be trampled by people, thus releasing fragrance into the air. They were also strewn in the bedrooms of most of the women.
Before the days of moth balls and insect repellents, herbalists concocted mixtures of herbs known to repel insects and moths. They discovered that long lasting fragrances could be produced from herbs, flowers and spices, mixed together and aged with fragrant oils. These herbal mixtures were placed into small bags and hung in wardrobes. They later became known as potpourri and sachets. They had more than the purpose of aroma, they also discouraged the musty odor of drawers and closets, encouraged sleep, absorbed cooking odors, soothed infants, and flavored meals. And keep in mind, those same herbs were used to treat illnesses.
During the times of the early settlers in the United States, potpourri was used as room decorations in beautiful glass containers, handcrafted pots, carved wooden boxes and placed upon ceramic dishes so the mixture could be viewed while the fragrance filled the air. Embroidered pillows were frequently filled with pleasant smelling herbs and flower mixtures. Most dressing tables contained a sachet filled with rosebuds and lavender flowers. When I smell the scent of lavender, I am instantly reminded of one grandmother, when I inhale the scent of lilacs, I think of the other.
The chief ingredient of a potpourri is rose petals. Roses are one of the few flowers that retain most of their fragrance after they are dried. The petals from the older red or pink species are best, damask and cabbage roses are wonderful because they have a richly perfumed odor that tends to be missing in modern hybrids. The gallica varieties retain both their color and scent well.
Lavender, tuberose, and rose geraniums also have a lasting fragrance. Any of them can add an interesting overtone to a rose based potpourri. Petals from other pleasantly scented flowers can contribute to a potpourri's fragrant bouquet. Other flowers can also be added simply to give more bulk or color, and I have even added bits of bark or pinecones to give a textural interest. A fixative is normally added to help retain fragrance and it, too, adds its own distinctive odor. I usually use orrisroot, the violet scented root of white iris, which can be bought from specialty pharmacies.
Besides flowers, potpourris often include some other strongly aromatic plant ingredients, cloves, cinnamon bark, bay leaves, vanilla beans, rosemary and allspice. Both spicy items and fixative should be added with restraint, though, since they can easily overwhelm the fragrance from the flowers.
Here are a few guidelines for making potpourri, they work well for me, and I think they will for you as well. Pick flowers in the morning after the dew has dried. I also try to work on a day that is sunny, a day that has very little humidity. It also works better if you are in the middle of a weeklong dry spell, because excess moisture will cause the flowers to mold or rot. Avoid flowers that are past their prime, too, because they will not have a good sustaining fragrance at that point. The petals should be dry until they are crisp. Select a spot that is warm, dry and out of direct sunlight. Spread the petals in a single layer on newspapers or on a window screen made of fiberglass or some other non metallic mesh. Cover with cheesecloth if there is a chance that the wind will disturb the petals.
Shift the petals every couple of days to hasten drying. It can take up to two weeks for the flowers to dry completely. If you dry only a small amount of petals at a time, store them in a tightly sealed jar until you have enough to make the potpourri. What follows is a good basic recipe for potpourri, it isn't difficult, and will make enough for your home as well as several small gifts for your friends.
A Basic Dry Potpourri
Use a container that you can seal tightly. The potpourri should fill it only about halfway.
1 quart dried rose petals
2-4 cups dried petals from other fragrant flowers
2-3 tablespoons ground orrisroot
2-3 tablespoons well crushed spices (ex: cloves or cinnamon)
2-3 tablespoons crushed aromatic leaves (ex: rosemary or bay)
6-10 drops aromatic oil (rose, lilac, jasmine, patchouli, or other choice)
Put the dried flower petals in a large jar and carefully mix them together. Then gently mix in the orrisroot, spices, and aromatic leaves. Finally, sprinkle the aromatic oil on top and seal the jar tightly. let the mixture stand in a dark place for 6 weeks or so to allow the odors to blend and mellow. Agitate the mixture every 3 or 4 days by shaking it and turning it from side to side. Divide the mixture into smaller glass containers that you can give as gifts or that you can set around your own home. Keep them covered when they are not in use.
You can also make sachets from this mixture by simply crushing it. Place a small amount in a frilly handkerchief and tie it with a ribbon. Or sew up some small bags using tightly woven fabric, such as silk or cotton. Add a ribbon to the top and you have a very nice gift. Slip sachets into pockets, attach them to hangers, or put them between layers in a drawer. Sometimes I add one as an adornment to a wrapped gift for a bridal shower.
The making of potpourri is an old craft, and when I was growing up I experimented with a lot of combinations. The recipe above is one I use today, tried and tested over the years. You might tweak it to fit your favorite aroma by changing the amounts or the ingredients themselves, because in the end, it all depends on our own preferences, doesn't it?
I have decided that someday soon I will make the perfect chocolate potpourri, then I will surround myself with my favorite scent!
The first photo in this article is from Wikipedia's Public Domain. The others are my own.
Most information came from my studies in humanities, and from the lessons I taught in those classes. Some verification was found in Wikipedia.