Potpourri - A History & Modern Comeback
Potpourri is a fascinating topic that has followed the development of mankind through the millennia. The history of potpourri is a beautiful walk through human and botanical interaction. We can trace the first use of potpourri in various forms all the way back to Early Man living in caves, as well as the Ancient Egyptians. Bouquets and dried herbs have been found in burial grounds and caves, presumably to mask scents. Lavender, thyme and chamomile were used during the Egyptian mummification process and bouquets and garlands have been found in tombs, accompanying the dead into the afterlife.
Potpourri has been used extensively since the 12th century to freshen castle rooms and mask the smells of medieval times. Spices and herbs were doused in spirits and left to rot, creating a pungent but pleasant aroma. In fact the word potpourri comes from the French ’pot pourri’ meaning rotten pot! These stewed herbs were then placed in decorative bowls and hidden in flower arrangements in rooms, imbuing the air with their scent. Bunches of dried herbs and flowers were also hung for their medicinal properties, to ward off insects and bad spirits and to brighten dimly lit, gloomy rooms. Women would tuck small bags filled with potpourri into their clothing to mask body odour, as bathing was not a common or convenient thing in those times.
Extremely popular in 17th century France, potpourri making followed the farming seasons. Fresh spring flowers and herbs were layered with salt to aid the drying process. More flowers and botanicals were added as spring and summer wore on, until the scent of dried (but sometimes also moldy and decaying) flowers started to develop. After the autumn harvest, spices such as cinnamon and orange peel were also added to the mixture, occasionally along with essential oils and perfumes too. The blend was then arranged in bowls around homes to create a beautiful fragrance and decorative arrangement.
In the Victorian era, dried botanicals were combined with a natural fixative such as orris root and essential oils. Potpourri became more of an art form, with the aim to develop beautifully smelling arrangements of preserved flowers and herbs that still kept their form and colour.
Potpourri making now varies vastly from the old way; in fact, you probably will rarely find potpourri made in the original way anymore, unless you make it yourself or buy from a small producer. Commercial varieties make use of synthetic fragrance oils which are mixed in with various leaves and artificially coloured potpourri botanicals to simulate the potpourri scent. But this can actually be rather bad for your health, especially if you have any respiratory issues.
Although modern homes seem to feature potpourri more and more infrequently, this ancient craft is making a comeback in high-end home stores overseas. We love the idea so we’re bringing the trend back home. Learn how to make your own potpourri blends, which not only make a room smell lovely but can also keep away insects, moths and spiders, and make for beautiful home decor.
So exactly what goes into a potpourri? Potpourri blends consist of dried flowers, herbs, berries, spices, seeds, dried citrus peel, pinecones, wood chips or any vegetal element that will produce a scent once preserved. These botanicals can then be boosted with essential oils, preservatives (eg. salt or even brandy) and scent fixers (eg. orris root powder).
Any dried flowers or petals can be used, but go with flowers that have a deep hue, which will keep their colour better than pale flowers. Dried pale flowers do still look pretty though, so they have a place in the potpourri aesthetic. Popular flowers to use include rose petals, lavender blossoms, cornflowers (no scent but they keep their colour exceptionally well), calendula petals and hibiscus petals. Striking flowers, berries, seeds and bark make for interesting textures and a rustic decor element, so be sure to include some of them.
Pretty much any dried herbs can be used, but popular ones are of the kitchen herb variety such as basil and thyme, peppermint, lemon verbena, lemongrass, sage, bay leaves, spearmint and rosemary. Others to try include angelica root, marjoram, mullein, frankincense resin and myrrh resin.
You can also customise the contents of your potpourri according to your needs. For instance if you want the potpourri to deter insects and spiders, go for peppermint leaves, geranium, cloves and other botanicals that are known to deter insects, and add complimenting essential oils to boost the scent. For a calming potpourri blend, go for lavender, chamomile and other calming botanicals and their complementing essential oils.
Potpourri Essential Oil Blends
You can match your essential oils to the herbs and flowers in your potpourri, to boost their natural scent. Or you can make up your own potpourri scent blends. Here are some ideas:
Citrus scents - ylang ylang, citrus oils such as lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit and naartjie, bergamot, neroli and cedarwood.
Spicy - orange, basil, thyme, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger etc.
Floral - jasmine, patchouli, spearmint, bergamot, lemon.
Soothing blend - lavender, patchouli, rose blend, jasmine, orange.
There are infinite ways to blend potpourri, as there are hundreds of botanicals to choose from! We’ve shared a couple of recipes that we really like, but feel free to substitute or come up with your own potpourri blends. You can also adjust the volumes of ingredients to make more or less.
Traditional Rose Potpourri
A classic recipe that you can’t go wrong with. The addition of salt here aids preservation but also makes it possible to steam the potpourri. In dry climates, the scent of potpourri may fade quicker, so steaming the potpourri helps the scent disperse in a room and keeps the mixture fresh.
2 c rose petals
½ c lavender flowers
¼ c rosemary
1 T cloves
1 T whole allspice
⅙ c juniper berries
⅛ c anise seed
2 T orris root
¼ c salt
15 drops rose essential oil
7 drops rose geranium essential oil
Layer the rose and lavender flowers on the bottom of a large plastic bowl. Add the herbs, berries, and spices. Top with the orris root and salt, then add the essential oils onto the salt. Mix together and cover large bowl. Mix the ingredients up every day for six weeks to ensure everything blends together. Store in plastic bags until ready for use.
⅓ c lemon balm
½ c rosemary
½ c juniper berries
1 c dried flower petals (rose petals, or any dried flowers you have collected)
1/3 c orris root
½ c salt
Layer the flowers, herbs and berries in the bottom of a large plastic bowl. Top with the orris root and salt, then add the essential oils onto the salt. Mix together and cover large bowl. Turn the ingredients daily for a month to ensure everything blends together. Store in plastic bags until ready for use.
This makes a delightfully fresh, minty scented potpourri.
1 c spearmint leaves
2 T orris root
¼ c salt
Layer the herbs in a large plastic bowl. Top with the orris root and salt, then add the essential oils onto the salt. Mix together and cover large bowl. Turn the ingredients daily for a month to ensure everything blends together. Store in plastic bags until ready for use. This might be a nice blend to display in kitchens and bathrooms to keep them smelling fresh.
Display your potpourri blends in glass, wooden or metal bowls, adding unusual rocks, seeds, precious stones or other natural items you have collected to make an interesting and festive display. Or add to a cloth bag and hang in closets and cupboards to keep your clothing and linen smelling fresh.
When properly looked after, potpourri can last for years and years. Top it up yearly with fresh cuttings from your garden, and add a spoon of brandy to keep the scent fresh. I’ve read about a batch of potpourri that is 40 years old and counting!