The term potpourri has come to mean the mixture of dried flowers and herbs, plus spices and other fragrant ingredients, which are kept in open bowls or perforated containers to gently perfume a room. Ancient Egyptian kings who had enormous quantities of fresh roses placed in crocks and buried for later use were probably the first people to experiment in trying to preserve the scent of summer flowers. The term potpourri is translated from the French term meaning “rotten pot” which describes the earliest way of preparing potpourri by the moist method, also known as a “sweet jar”. In truth, the ingredients literally do rot. Today, the most common method of preparing potpourri is by the dry method. By the 18th century, many different recipes for potpourri had developed and most country ladies had their own special formula, which they handed down from generation to generation.
The dry method of potpourri is prepared from dried materials, the bulk of which is traditionally rose petals. This method is the easies to make and the final result is much prettier than the moist type since all the petals and leaves remain separate and intact. The natural scents of the flowers, however, are not so well preserved, as with the moist method, so essential oils must be added for extra fragrance.
If using your own flowers, they should be collected in the morning before the sun is high, but should be rid of all traces of early dew, and each blossom should be just opened, at the peak of its bloom. Flowers should be cut on a dry day, after a few days of clear weather. Flowers are best dried away from strong light in a well-ventilated place where air can circulate around them. If using only the petals from the flowers, they must be stirred or turned every few days. Your goal is to have petals that are crisp and dry.
To your flowers and petals you will need to add a fixative that is usually orris root, calamus root or gun benzoin. Fixatives are materials that activate, and preserve the fragrance of potpourri. It also retards the evaporation of the volatile oils in the herbs and flowers, releasing them slowly over a longer period of time thus sustaining the blend quality. Some fixatives have little or no scent of their own, they only absorb and set the scent of the blend. Fixatives that are scented add their own distinctive fragrance addition to your blend. The second step is to add the spices you have chosen, and any other dry ingredients such as citrus peel, all should be absolutely dry. Mix this all together gently and then separate into batches and experiment with adding your essential oils one drop at a time until you are satisfied with the scent. Then place each batch in a separate container and close tightly. Leave enough room in the container so you can gently turn it to keep the elements well mixed. The aging process will take about six weeks to be perfect, but the potpourri can be used after three weeks. After a week or so, you can open the containers and evaluate the fragrances. During this time, you can add a few more drops of essential oils or more spice if you desire.
Now you must select a container to display your potpourri. Remember that your potpourri has considerable beauty, so you want it to be visible, and also that the fragrance needs to escape into the air to perfume your room. After time if your potpourri starts to lose its fragrance, return it to a container that can be covered and refresh it with the addition of some essential oils.
Here is a simple recipe for a rose and lavender potpourri:
4 oz rose petals
2 oz lavender
1 oz lemon verbena leaves
½ oz marjoram
½ oz rosemary
4 tsp orange peel
2 tbsp allspice berries
1 tbsp cloves, crushed
4 tbsp orris root
5 drops rose essential oil
3 drops lavender essential oil
In making moist potpourri you don’t have to be as careful in handling your materials as with the dry method. Some moist potpourris are said to retain their perfumes for an extended period of time. As far as containers, you can used any container with a cover as long as it is not transparent. Rose petals form the base of all moist potpourris, which are made by curing the petals and flowers with salt. Then dried herbs, spices and fixatives are added to the mixture and left to mature.
To make moist potpourris, pick the flowers as you would for the dry method. Then dry for only a few days until the flowers have a leathery texture, not crisp, just limp with their bulk reduced by about one-third. For a mixing vessel, you will need a non-transparent straight-sided container with a lid (a crock would work well), as the mixture needs to be stirred as it matures. The moist mixture needs to mature for at least two weeks.
Using one cup of salt (non-iodized) to every three cups of petals, arrange in lawyers, petals first, in your container. Weight this down laying a plate with something heavy on it and leave for two to six weeks. The mixture in the crock should dry out and cake, but it starts to bubble or ferment, stir it but do not add any more flowers. Excess moisture should be poured off. When all the petals have formed a dry cake, empty them onto a large clean surface and break them up. Add 6 tablespoons of dried herbs for every gallon of caked petals, plus no more than 10 ounces of mixed spices, fixatives and citrus peels, and store in a non-transparent container.
For a sweet potpourri add to one gallon of your finished petals:
2 tbsp sweet marjoram
1 tbsp thyme
1 tbsp bergamot
1 tbsp crumbled bay leaves
1 tbsp lemon balm leaves crushed
the peel of one orange
1 ½ oz orris root
1 oz gum benzoin
1 oz ground cloves
½ oz mace
½ oz all spice
½ oz sandalwood powder
The only thing that may seem difficult the first time you make any of these potpourris will be to learn to gauge what you are smelling and to take into account the initial rawness of your product. When the flowers first begin to dry they have a wonderful scent; halfway through they may smell as if they should be thrown away. Only after they are mixed, fixed and matured does the original floral odor return. When the raw odor is present there is a tendency to over perfume with oils, but have faith; hidden away is the perfume of your summer garden waiting to be enjoyed.
By Pat Myers