The Scents of Potpourri

Potpourris scent the home with subtle fragrances, lovely textures, and florals to behold, with the advantage of being closed only to be opened another day. A French word, potpourri literally means “rotten pot,” but recognized today as a mixture of botanicals, spices, oils and a fixative to bind the ingredients together. Potpourris, beautiful to look at and as aromatic as fine perfume, run the gamut of price ranges. From bagged potpourris costing a few dollars to exquisitely boxed potpourris that sport designer names, the fragrant mixtures adorn homes everywhere and imbue a softly scented ambiance.

The creation of potpourri begins in gardens and the natural world. Flowers have been the basis for perfumes and scents for thousands of years. The desire to capture the rich scent of roses and hold it long after the last bloom fades continues to this day. Within a fragrance we find memories of a summer morning picking roses for a bouquet. A hint of lavender may take us back to a grandmother’s drawer where a lace handkerchief sachet lay, gently scenting lingerie. A spicy kitchen aroma makes the mouth water in remembrance of freshly baked apple pie. The need to reinvent the very scents that take us back to times of grace, laughter, and love come to play in potpourris.

Purchasing a potpourri may be a risky business. You’re not sure just what you’re getting until you pour the contents into a bowl. There may be little scent to the potpourri, no scent at all, or such a strong odor it causes the eyes water. A well-made potpourri will last a long time and many of the more expensive mixtures come with refresher oil.
Often times, cheaper potpourris contain more wood chips or curls than anything else. Dyed wood chips saturated with fragrant oils heaped in a bowl lack the beauty and varied textures of a finely produced potpourri of flowers, herbs, and spices.

The Flowers

Manufacturing your own potpourri guarantees a personal creation that smells and looks just the way you want it to. Dried botanicals are the base of potpourris. Flower heads and petals are a must. You can either purchase dried flowers for potpourri making from suppliers or dry blossoms from your garden throughout the growing season.

If you’re serious about making potpourris ask a local florist if the flowers that are past the selling stage could be purchased for a small fee. Who knows… perhaps she’d rather give them to you than toss them out. Dry foliage as well as the flowers, although they may not have the scent, they will provide a different color, texture, and add depth to the blend.

Herbs and Spices

Flowers have a tendency to lose their fragrances after drying. Herbs prolong the scents due to the oils that most herbs carry. Adding dried rose geranium leaves to a potpourri base of mostly roses keeps the blend smelling like a rose. Spices, which may be the root, berry, seed, or fruit of an aromatic plant add another dimension to the potpourri. Whole spices retain their scents and flavors much longer than ground ones and look wonderful in a bowl. You can find whole spices at grocery stores and online from suppliers of botanicals.

The Fixative

The all-important fixative is there to be smelled but not necessarily seen. Its purpose is to stabilize or “fix” the scent within the mix. The fixative keeps the potpourri fragrant. Orris root comes from the Florentine iris, smells a bit like violets, and can easily be found in craft stores or from suppliers. Stay away from the powdered variety as it tends to give a dusty appearance to potpourris. Other fixatives that may be used include ambergris, the oil of whale sperm, used in expensive perfumes; calamus, a root or rhizome of the American iris; frankincense, a gum; myrrh, another gum ; oak moss harvested from oak trees in Southern Europe, and lastly sandalwood chips. These are few botanicals and oils that can be used as fixatives; however, some of them carry a hefty price tag which seems a poor choice compared to orris root.

Essential Oil

Essential oils are the essence of a flower, herb, or spice. The essential oil or oils create the scent desired. Extremely potent, it takes only small amounts to scent potpourris. The oils usually come in two forms, natural and synthetic. The costs of some natural oils are far too prohibitive to be included in a homemade potpourri. For example, attar of roses, considered one of the most beautiful scents in the world costs $50.00 for one quarter of an ounce. You decide which oils you want to use, natural or synthetic, and there’s no reason why you can’t blend them together if you so desire.

There are two ways to create potpourri, the dry process or the moist one. Although the moist potpourri method comes with a long history, using the dry method is easier and fool-proof.

Dry Potpourri

Potpourri making requires a few tools: A kitchen scale, mortar and pestle or something to crush herbs and spices in, wooden spoons, glass or pottery mixing bowl, a scoop, and an eyedropper.

For every quart of bone-dry flowers, leaves, and herbs add 3 tablespoons of orris root that has been cut into small pieces. (You’ll want to buy it in this form or crush it in the mortar and pestle) For every 3 tablespoons of orris root use 1 teaspoon of essential oil. First time potpourri making requires a lot of trial and error sniffing, but eventually you’ll reach the perfect mix of flowers, herbs, spices, oils, and fixatives.

A few days before mixing the botanicals, prepare the fixative. A small lidded jar works well for this task. Place the orris root in the jar; add the essential oil or oils. Give the jar a vigorous shake and put aside to set. If you think about it, shake the jar each day. This method of preparing the fixative keeps the botanicals drier.

Place all the flowers, herbs and spices in the mixing bowl and gently mix with the wooden spoon or your hands. Dried flowers and herbs are fragile so great care should be taken to not crush or break them as you stir. Add the fixative. Stir gently and place the entire contents into a brown paper bag.

Close the bag allowing the fixative, oils and botanicals to blend into a harmonious mixture of sweet scents for about two weeks. You can shake the bag, but do so with great care. Pour the cured potpourri in a lovely bowl, add a few perfectly dried flower heads to the top for a truly eye appealing potpourri and breathe in the wondrous fragrances of a summer garden in the middle of the winter.