(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 5, 2007. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas.)
The word pomander dates from the Middle Ages corruption of the French pomme d'ambre, literally, apple of amber. A container the size and shape of an apple (usually of metal or wood and pierced with holes) was filled with ambergris or spices and hung from somewhere on the person either to ward off harmful vapors, which were believed to cause disease, or to ameliorate the effects of the infrequent personal hygiene habits of the Middle Ages.
Nowadays, we all bathe almost compulsively and enjoy pomander balls that are traditionally an orange, apple, lemon, or lime studded with cloves, maybe rolled in spices and maybe decorated with a ribbon. This is a craft that is really easy and fun to do with children and is rewarding for a long time afterwards. You can hang a pomander ball over the mantel, over the kitchen sink, put one in the linen closet, or give one to the postal carrier, who won't know what to think! If you could make them from fruit you grow yourself that would be absolutely splendid - on our urban quarter acre in New England, that's not likely, but maybe you could do it in your yard, garden or orchard! A finished pomander ball is like a cup of Bigelow's Constant Comment tea that you don't have to drink. Try making one, you'll see.

You need one perfect, unblemished piece of fruit - I've only used oranges. Image In fact, except for the ribbon, I had everything on hand already. I've read that it can be done with lemons and limes too. Apples seem like they might get mushy too fast, but they sure would be quick to make, and yummy to smell. My mind is racing now - how about some of the exotic fruits I've read about on DavesGarden but have never tasted - would it work with them too? Kumquats? Pomegranates? Persimmons? You name it, give it a try... The cloves have a natural preserving effect.

Oh yeah, the other absolutely essential ingredients are cloves, whole cloves. Since these come from Zanzibar and Madagascar, it's unlikely that many of you have these harvested from your backyard garden. When I ran out of cloves and had to go for refills, one tiny little half ounce container from my local grocery store set me back $6.99! If you use whole cloves for anything else, like The Christmas Ham, or you plan to make more than one small pomander, I would investigate bulk online sources or even your local health food store.

If you choose to roll your finished pomander in spices (or shake it together with spices in a plastic bag, or spoon spices over it), you can use literally any spices or even tea you have around. I used ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, the scraps of cloves that had Imagecrumbled off during the poking-in process, and some loose tea that my step-daughter thoughtfully brought me from London a few years ago. You could also use allspice, pumpkin pie spice (which is really just a combination of some of the aforementioned spices), or let your mind get creative! How about rose hips? Lemon balm? Bergamot? What have you harvested?

Using a fork, ice pick, tooth pick or other sharp object (just be careful for the safety of your little ones), pierce holes through the skin of the orange. (Just substitute the name of the fruit you're using for 'orange', OK?) This hole-piercing step can prevent a lot of frustration for little kids and even, I hope, eliminate the sore thumb that so many of us remember from our childhood pomander ball experiences! When you pierce the holes ahead of time, you can make designs, or not, as you wish.ImageThen carefully slide a whole clove deeply into each hole. (When I say "ahead of time" I don't mean hours or days, just what you can finish in a few minutes or half an hour.)

Some people feel it is essential to keep the 'rosette' of the clove intact - I find no matter how careful I am, when I push the clove in, often the top part of the clove falls apart. On the other hand, I guess I'm not that fussy about the appearance of the final product. And while the cloves are disintegrating, you're getting a wonderful aroma. However, this is the part that some children find painful, pushing in the clove with their little thumbs. Try letting them cover their thumbs with a thimble. If they find that too tricky, even a rubber glove works to protect the thumb from the sharp, prickly clove!

  • work over a waterproof tray - I always use a tray because I'm usually working in bed, and you know how unpleasant it is to roll over and realize you lost track of a clove or two. Even using a tray, we still were changing the sheets fairly often! Use a water-tight tray, if possible. Another reason to use a tray is if your fruit is juicy enough to squirt!
  • poke in a straightened then re-bent paperclip if you plan to hang your finished pomander ball. I used a red one so it would show up in the pictures but if I were just doing it for myself I would have matched the paperclip either to the color of the fruit or of the ribbon. Or maybe the bedspread? ImageOn that note, the bland, almost invisible ribbon in my pictures is actually a an ivory organza which shimmers in the kitchen window!
  • allow time for your fruit to mummify. There is a school of thought, or I guess you'd call it a school of pomander ball making, that says you must wait until the fruit is dried and hard before rolling it in spices or tying ribbons around it. I talked to many people, online and in person, who don't wait the recommended 2 - 6 weeks until it's totally dry to begin enjoying their pomander balls. Some places are just so arid that the extra wait is unnecessary. Some people, myself included, feel why should you hang it somewhere else to dry out so you can hang it in your kitchen window?
  • if you do choose to roll your creation in spices, which adds another dimension of scent and also helps disguise any bald patches on your fruit, be aware that some spices can stain. The one that just popped in my head is curry - as I'm sure you realize, curry can stain fabrics, especially treasured, pale fabrics, a bright yellow. Now I doubt any of you will be rolling - or shaking - your pomander balls in curry powder, but then again, I have advised you to be creative. Furthermore, some of the spices I have suggested - ginger, for instance, and nutmeg - can stain, especially if the material is particularly irreplaceable and hard to clean. Sort of a Murphy's Law principle. Just Be Very Careful.

To me, pomander balls are about the smell of the room while you're making them, the smell of wherever you hang them, the cool way they fossilize... They are part of winter the way the smell of wood smoke is part of winter, or the way your favorite Christmas carol is part of Christmas. Smell, taste and sound are such primitive senses! Although elaborate careers can be built on classical music, gourmet cooking and fancy wine or French perfumes, to me, it all starts with 'twinkle, twinkle, little star,' ginger cookies and lemonade, and the smell of a pretty flower. Making a pomander ball for yourself or with a child may help rekindle the sense of a time when the best gifts were homemade and the nicest garden was your family's.