As humans, we have an excellent olfactory memory, which means our brains are able to store aromatic memories and other sensory remembrances. A single scent can remind us of people, places or events from our past. For some of us, the scent of patchouli touches into an olfactory memory that is nearly 50 years old. It is the single aroma most often connected to the 1960s, and all the trappings of that era.
Ask someone older than 50 about patchouli and they will either get a dreamy look in their eye or screw up their face in disgust. Not everyone who lived through that patchouli-soaked period has fond memories of that time or of the fragrance associated with it.
Those with the dreamy look or younger folks wanting to recapture some of the charm of hippie culture may want to consider putting an attractive patchouli plant in their garden. It’s a lovely shrub that grows well here and you can choose varieties that are either potent or mild in aroma. Its appearance alone is enough to recommend patchouli as an interesting addition to your garden.
Patchouli is a bushy herb in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. It has a square stem and soft leaves similar to those of other members of the family but with a very different scent. The name is derived from the Tamil words “patchai” for green and “ellai” for leaf. Several varieties exist. Pogostemon cablin and P. heyneasus are the two most often cultivated for the patchouli oil found in the leaves. Of these two, P. cablin has a more potent fragrance.
Pogostemon heyneasus, or Java patchouli, is likely native to Indonesia and Malaysia and other tropical regions of Asia. Its popularity has spread throughout the tropics for its appealing growth habit and attractive flowers.
Pogostemon cablin, or true patchouli, is also native to tropical regions in south Asia and is extensively cultivated in Caribbean countries, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and India for its highly fragrant leaves.
All varieties of patchouli grow as small, bushy shrubs that can grow to be 3 feet tall in ideal conditions. The inflorescence of each variety is slightly different. The Java variety has small purple flowers that grow in a compact cluster at the ends of flowering stems. Though P. cablin seems to produce more leaves and flower spikes, the small lavender or white blossoms are more sparsely arranged on the stems. Though the flowers of each variety are attractive, it is the leaves that carry the aroma. For those wanting to bring the fragrance of patchouli to their garden or make scented oils from the plant, P. cablin would be the best choice.
Patchouli grows well in the tropics. It thrives in hot weather but not in direct sun. The plants prefer humid growing conditions and can wilt in dry conditions but will revive quickly once watered. The fragrant and attractive flowers usually appear here in winter when days are shorter. Once spent, the flowers produce seeds. The seeds are tiny and delicate but can be planted if care is taken not to crush them. Cuttings from the mother plant can also be rooted in water or a propagating medium to produce additional plants.
The tiny seeds can be sparsely sprinkled on a rough soil surface and pressed into the seeding mix. Kept in a light area that is warm and moist, they should germinate in two to three weeks. Once they have a set of true leaves, you can move them to larger pots or into your garden. Within a few months, you can begin harvesting leaves for sachets or oil extraction.
Patchouli plants are not usually attacked by pests. The aromatic oil they contain keeps most insects at bay. In shady areas, the plants can become leggy and may require some pruning to retain their compact growth habit. Though patchouli plants are tolerant of many soil types, maintaining a layer of mulch around the plant, as well as occasional introductions of compost or organic fertilizers, can encourage leaf production and flowering.
For those who find patchouli’s aroma attractive, the uses of the leaves or the oil distilled from them are numerous. The earthy odor harbored in the leaves can be released by crushing them to use in sachets. As long as the scent lasts, the leaves are effective as aromatic bathing herbs, as well as bug repellent and in aromatherapy to relivee stress. The dried leaves can be used in potpourris or burned as incense. The deep musky scent has also been used as a sexual attractant and is often associated with love and magic.
Though patchouli oil is extracted commercially through distillation, you can make it at home by diffusing dried leaves in oil. Fill a clean, dry jar with dried patchouli leaves and pour oil over the dried leaves. Sweet almond or jojoba oils are lighter than olive oil, but all will work. Cap the jar tightly and place it in a saucepan full of water that has just boiled. Once the water cools, you can remove the jar and store it in the sun for a few days then a cool, dry place for about 30 days. Be sure to shake it daily to help the aroma disperse. After about a month, pour the mixture though a cheesecloth filter to strain out the remaining leaves.
The resulting oil can be used as a perfume, deodorant or massage oil and can be mixed with other oils such as lavender to enhance its therapeutic properties as a treatment for your hair and scalp or to provide healing and prevent scarring of your skin. In its stronger, distilled form, patchouli oil can be used medicinally as an antifungal, antibacterial or antiviral agent. Many uses for patchouli oil can be found on the Web at numerous sites.
Whether you grow patchouli for its fragrance or simply for its attractive appearance, it will be a great addition to your garden to remind you of times past or serve you today in numerous ways.
Some patchouli varieties are available locally and seed for Pogostemon heyeanus and P. cablin are available through Horizon Herbs at horizonherbs.com.
Diana Duff is a local organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.