Patchouli: What Was Once Old Becomes New Again…and Again

By Amy Forsberg

Painting by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon 1805 The Empress JosephineIn 2001 when I was the National Herb Garden intern, my internship project was to research the plants in the Fragrance Garden and write the copy for the permanent display labels. I was delighted to get to research the Fragrance Garden, because so many of my favorite plants are fragrant plants, and I love them, both for their wonderful scents, but also for their often romantic and beguiling histories. So many of those stories could not fit on those small labels, but they stayed with me all these years nonetheless. My favorite was the story of how patchouli became known in the West, a story that involves French fashion, mistaken identity, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Picture of Satya Patchouli incense, 1960s classicYou may have a strong reaction to just hearing the word “patchouli.” It seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it smells. I love it, but I understand disliking it. It is very strong and musky and extremely persistent (more on that later). Or maybe you dislike it because of its strong association with that other love-them-or-hate-them topic, the hippies. American and European young people flocked to India in the late sixties and early seventies and brought patchouli back home with them, along with other Indian goods and practices now associated with the hippie counterculture, like marijuana, incense, mala beads, colorful printed cottons, yoga, meditation, sitar music, and vegetarianism.

Patchouli oil is distilled from Pogostemon cablin, an herbaceous shrubby perennial in the mint family. The scent is variously described as musky, woodsy, earthy, sensual, and camphoraceous. Those who dislike it may agree more with this quote from an 1856 Ladies Home Companion article: “It is far from agreeable, having a sort of mossy or musty odor, analogous to Lycopodium; or, as some say, it smells of ‘old coats’.”

Picture of patchouli leaves, Pogostemon cablinNevertheless, it is an essential ingredient in the perfume world, where it is an extremely common base note found in a majority of perfumes today, at least in small quantities. It is found in Opium, Coco Mademoiselle, Paloma, Tabu, Arpege, Miss Dior, and many others. The oil is both very strong and long lasting and is also an excellent fixative, which means that it “fixes” whichever scents it is blended with, making the more volatile top notes last longer. It is said to have the rare property of deepening and improving with age, becoming richer and more complex, unlike most essential oils, which degrade over time (the same is said of sandalwood, vetiver, and frankincense). In small amounts and blended with other scents, it isn’t necessarily discernible as patchouli, but it lends the perfume a rich, warm, well-rounded base. It is also used in very low concentrations in the flavor industry to flavor beverages, food, and candy! In India, it is used to scent tobacco. Interestingly, there is no synthetic version.

Fun side note: Regarding patchouli’s fixative properties, one source I encountered suggested that it may have had the unfortunate effect of fixing (rather than masking) the smell of body odor when worn by unwashed hippies and thereby amplifying their body odor. So when some people say they dislike the smell of patchouli, it may actually be the blended scent of patchouli and body odor that they are remembering as so objectionable! 

Although India is where many Americans first encountered patchouli, Pogostemon cablin is not native there, and was probably not introduced to India until about 1834, around the time it was first described in the West. Pogostemon cablin is believed to be native to the Philippines, and grows wild in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. But the name “patchouli” derives from a Tamil word meaning “green leaf” and was, since ancient times, applied to several related plants with similar strong camphoraceous scents, including Pogostemon heyneanus and other Pogostemon species, Microtoena patchouli, and Agastache rugosa, all of which were used medicinally and as insect repellents. When Pogostemon cablin was introduced to India, it was also called patchouli and used in similar ways, being the most potent of all. Pogostemon heyneanus is known as Java patchouli and is grown commercially on a much smaller scale than P. cablin.

Pogostemon cablin is a tropical and subtropical crop that prefers warm, humid weather, loamy, well-drained, fertile, and slightly acidic soil, and full sun or partial shade. Today, it is cultivated in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, Vietnam, and the Caribbean and is often grown as an understory crop with tree crops such as coconut (Cocos nucifera), rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), and oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). It is generally pest free and easy to propagate from cuttings.

Picture of shawl from Kashmir, mid-19th centuryAnd now for the story that so tantalized me. As a lifelong seamstress, I love textile history and lore as much as all things herbal, and this story has both! The history of patchouli arriving in the West is inextricably bound up with the history of Kashmiri shawls. Beautiful, ornate, woolen shawls have been woven in the Kashmir valley on the border of India and Pakistan for many centuries (documented to the 11th century, and believed to go back to the 3rd century AD), and have been widely known as a luxurious status symbol for just as long. They were woven from yarn spun from the soft undercoat hairs of the Changthangi goat, which have to be raised at high altitudes in order for the goats to produce such Picture of Pashmina goatsdelicate silky fibers. The hair–and resulting yarn–is extremely fine textured and is known as cashmere (a variant spelling of Kashmir) or as pashmina (a term originally referring only to the very finest grade of cashmere but now diluted to near meaninglessness). One shawl could take a team of weavers many months up to a couple of years to produce, and the finest shawls cost the equivalent of about $10,000 in today’s dollars. They were gifted to and worn by royalty and the ruling elite throughout India, the Middle East and Near East, and beyond. By the mid-1700s, the shawls were finding their way into Europe, brought home to England and France by officers with the East India Company as gifts for their wives, and by the late 1700s, there were also textile factories in Scotland, England, and France creating imitations from fine merino wool and eventually from cashmere yarn imported from the East.

Around 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte acquired one of these shawls while in Egypt and gave it to Empress Josephine as a gift. The shawls then exploded in popularity and were highly sought after. Josephine Painting of Empress Josephine 1808 by Antoine Jean Grosherself eventually collected hundreds of them. Those “in the know” considered it essential to acquire an authentic imported Kashmiri shawl and not one of the inferior domestic imitations. A reliable way to tell them apart, at least prior to about 1830, was by their scent! For when the shawls were packed for shipping in Kashmir, they were layered with dried patchouli leaves to repel moths. The enduring scent infused the shawls and added greatly to their mystique and glamour. The fragrance became as fashionable as the shawl, but for years, no one in the West knew its source. By 1826, French perfumers figured out that the source of the scent was the crumbled brown packing material, and eventually plants were located, imported, and grown in greenhouses. However, the plant that was imported was Pogostemon cablin, while scholars now believe that it is far more likely that it was actually the milder Pogostemon heyneanus that was being used for packing. The leaves were steam distilled for their oil, which was used on shawls, scented handkerchiefs, and in perfumes. The dried leaves were used in potpourri to scent parlors and drawing rooms in England.

Image depicting women wearing shawls of early 19th century FrancenturyThe shawls, and the scent of patchouli, were an essential item of fashion from 1800 up to about the early 1870s. Many women of high society had their portraits painted wrapped in their shawls. The shawls paired well with the clingy Empire style gowns worn in the early part of the century (think Jane Austen movies) and also with the full crinoline and hoop skirts of mid-century. However, they did not go as well Painting of “Madame Riviere” 1805 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Wikipedia.with the bustled dresses coming into fashion in the 1870s and so fell out of fashion in favor of fitted jackets. Economic and geo-political changes also hurt imports. Additionally, the scent of patchouli also gradually fell out of favor as it became associated with licentiousness and marital infidelity, as its persistence would often betray the guilty parties, and among “respectable” women, lighter floral scents like violets and lilac came into style.

One last fun side note: The curvilinear motif so common on the borders of the shawls is an ancient Indian motif at least 2000 years old but became known in the West as “paisley,” because the Scottish town of Paisley was such a major center for European production of these shawls that all such shawls eventually became known as “paisley shawls,” regardless of their geographic origin. Thus, the word “paisley” eventually cameImage depicting the paisley design on the edge of fabric to refer to the motif itself. The pattern endured in European fashion and decorative arts, coming in and out of style over the years, and eventually exploding in popularity once again in the 1960s, right along with patchouli oil as perfume!

References

Bradford, Isabella & Holloway Scott, Susan. 2009. Wrapped in Luxury: Cashmere Shawls. Two Nerdy History Girls. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2009/12/wrapped-in-luxury-cashmere-shawls.html

Herb Companion Staff. 2002. Herb to Know: Patchouli. Mother Earth Living. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/plant-profile/HERB-BASICS-TO-KNOW-Patchouli

Murugan, Ramar & Livingstone, C.. 2010. Origin of the name ‘patchouli’ and its history. Current Science. 99. 1274-1276. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279905001_Origin_of_the_name_’patchouli’_and_its_history

Pallardy, Richard. 2018. The Mysterious Origins of Patchouli. Earth.com: Nature-Science-Life. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.earth.com/news/patchouli-origins/

Patel, Maneesha. 2017. In Pursuit of Patchouli. Balbac Beauty blog. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://balbecbeauty.com/blogs/news/in-pursuit-of-patchouli

Ramya H G, Palanimuthu V and Rachna. 2013. An introduction to patchouli (Pogostemon cablin Benth.) – A medicinal and aromatic plant: It’s importance to mankind. Agricultural Engineering International: CIGR Journal, 15(2): 243 -250. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/25578500/An_introduction_to_patchouli_Pogostemon_cablin_Benth_A_medicinal_and_aromatic_plant_Its_importance_to_mankind

Photo Credits: 1) Painting by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1805, The Empress Josephine (Public Domain); 2) Satya Patchouli incense, 1960s classic (www.hippieshop.com); 3) Patchouli leaves, Pogostemon cablin (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Painting of shawl makers in Kashmir, 1867, by William Simpsom (Wikimedia Commons); Painting by John Singer Sargent, Cashmere, 1908 (Public Domain); 5) Shawl from Kashmir, mid-19th century (Wikimedia Commons, Honolulu Museum of Art); 6) Pashmina goats (Wikimedia Commons); 7) Painting of Empress Josephine, 1808, by Antoine Jean Gros (Public Domain); 8) Image depicting women wearing shawls of early 19th-century France (Wikimedia Commons); 9) Painting of “Madame Riviere,” 1805, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (Wikimedia Commons); 10) Image depicting the paisley design on the edge of fabric (Wikimedia Commons, Aukland Museum).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Amy Forsberg follows her dual passions of gardening and sewing in Maryland. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

Michael Michaud Talks about His Herb Jewelry

Michael Michaud Talks about His Herb Jewelry

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

7238BZIn the early 1970s, when the late President Richard Nixon was bugging the Watergate, Michael Michaud started his jewelry career. Known, today, for his cast botanical jewelry, including an extensive herb collection, Michaud, then, pounded a sterling silver fork into a bracelet for his girlfriend.

Now, he works with real plants to develop molds. His copies of nature reflect the beauty and detail of the natural world. We caught up with him recently to learn a bit more about his Four Seasons Jewelry and Table Art.

Among his herb pieces are basil, lavender, mallow, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme.

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Napkin Rings from the Table Art Collection

Where did the original inspiration come from?

A handful of grapes. I was managing a jewelry casting operation in the 90’s when one of my assistants asked me if I could cast the grapes she was eating. One idea led to another through experimenting with casting organic elements.

What was your first piece of herb jewelry?

The first herb I cast was the rosemary. The texture and shape allowed it to be easily interpreted into jewelry.

What are you most proud of?

I haven’t designed my favorite collection yet. However, I am most proud of the cherry and scallion pins that were featured in former secretary of state Madeline Albright’s 2009 book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.

How do you keep fresh? Keep yourself inspired? How often do you design new pieces?

Nature offers so many inspirations; it’s easy to keep moving forward. We are constantly designing new collections from different demographics all over the globe.

Do you still design all pieces? Are they made in the US?

I have my hands on every piece that leaves the studio. However, in the design process it is important to get input from others and collaborate in order to stay current. I have an assistant designer who helps with that. I still sit at the bench every day and continue to make each component by hand. All of our production is done in New York, but can be purchased all over the world. We sell to a variety of places such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert museum, and galleries all over the United States, Europe, China and Japan.


Do you have a favorite herb jeweler?

 

Bring Your Credit Card to Asheville’s River Arts District

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

If you’re one of the 250-plus HSA members attending the 2016 Annual Meeting, April 29, in Asheville, N.C., bring your credit card. The River Arts District has inspiring art you’ll want to take home.

For me it was a watermelon tourmaline ring. The ring was Asheville - ringsynchronicity. I’ve wanted a watermelon tourmaline ring for 20 years. Every now and then I’d visit NEOMA rock shop in Northeast Ohio lusting after slices of the pink and green stone. I’d make
hints to my ex-husband. (Maybe that’s why he’s an ex; he couldn’t hear me.)

Anyway, I could never bring together beauty and budget.

Just two weeks before my trip to Asheville, I’d renewed my quest, searching Etsy.com for the perfect piece. I must have wasted an hour drooling. But nothing was quite me.

Asheville artistEureka! I stumbled into Bluebird Designs studio in Asheville and knew I couldn’t leave without the chunky sterling silver and gemstone ring.

For your own shopping epiphany,  you must get a River Arts District guide. Peruse online, but you’ll save printer ink if you pick up one in town.

Know that 200 artists are housed in a string of 22 converted industrial and historical buildings on a one-mile stretch along the French Broad River. This is not a mall, but a walking or driving tour. You may go by foot and pick up your art later. Or even have it shipped home. We drove because I’d recently had foot surgery.Asheville RAD

You’ll find notable artists like Matt Toomey making sculptural art baskets and hand-dyed, felted wearables at Dyed in the Wool Designs.  And those are just a tease.

The studio guide will help you decide which buildings hold the art medium/artists you’re most interested in. And, that will help you make the best use of your time. NOTE: Some studios require climbing stairs

Know that, true to their reputation, artists may keep funky hours. You’re most likely to find them in their studios on weekends.


Tell us about your favorite Asheville artist.

Herb Jewelry Makes a Statement

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Sage Leaf headbandsWhen I dress, I do it consciously. To fit in. To stand out. To make a statement. Details depend on my mood and event. For work, I’m conservative, for a party playful.

As I’ve elevated my social conscience, I attend environmental and farm-to-table events – dinners, farm market fundraisers, workshops and such. I’m even going to a farm-themed wedding in October. For these occasions, I want my attire to play a supporting role.

On a junking trip with my mom, I found a vintage necklace with porcelain strawberries and miniature straw baskets hanging from silver filigree links. What fun to wear for a farm event and worth the $25.

At our next stop, an antique store, I found a gold electroplated leaf of curly parsley. For $4!!! I’ve seen maple leaves and gingko leaves, but parsley? Score.Sage Leaves rose Quarts necklace (1)

Game on.

I want classy or kitschy, but not mass production. I’ll scour first- and second-hand. Ah, but Google “herb jewelry” and the credit card is in danger.

My favorite botanical jewelry artist is Michael Michaud. I first encountered his work at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. He creates with the lyrical parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme as well as lavender, basil and peppermint. It’s so hard to choose.

After drooling over Michaud’s fine art collection, I turned to etsy.com for handcrafted interpretations. And, what fun I had.

I found dried herb material in tiny glass vials as pendants or leaves encased in resin for rings and bracelets. I stumbled on herbs stamped into precious metal and polymer clay. I discovered them cast in metal or electroplated.  Entire etsy “shops” are dedicated to glass beads that look like spikey lavender blooms.

Just shut down my PayPal account already.

Ginamarie Engels from of MyriadMirage in Nyack, New York, presses sage, lavender, eucalyptus between glass or casts them in resin to create pendants, cuffs, earrings and more. These  “terrariums” stop time.

“My ideas are inspired by nature,” says Gina. “Sometimes I wake up and feel inspired to share an herb’s beauty. I want to share the artistry in nature.”

lavender framed
Spin the globe east to Sochi, Russia, where Tamara Borisova  surrounds lavender sprigs with wooden frames and encases all in resin.

“I live in a beautiful city with a huge variety of plants,” writes Tamara. “These are the northern subtropics in the world. I live in the city center, but the forest is growing behind my house. How do I not get inspiration here?”

Lavender with its texture and color is a favored muse. But, chives and dandelion fluff move the creative spirit of Isabell Kiefhaber of Kirchheim Germany.

“Very often, I’m inspired just by being around with open eyes on the details of life,” she says. “I zoom in on things or moments and keep them in mind. The fast heartbeat of cities like Berlin or the slow-motion climbing into mountain areas can be inspiring. Usually situations of everyday life, put into another context, are the biggest inspiration.chive blossom pendant

These three young women are just few of artists moved by herbs. An Etsy search for herb jewelry can busy me for hours.


What herbal jewelry have you found at retail, art shows or online?