Monday, October 8, 2012


Scented Pine Cone Mix (recipe follows)
In looking through my files of herbal classes I've taught over the years, I've just noticed a glaring omission - I have never written a handout on making potpourri! How can this be? Potpourri was one of the first things I ever made to sell at craft shows - I still make several types of it regularly. So, why have I never written down  any instructions for it?

Maybe because it's just that easy. With a few basic guidelines, some simple equipment, and your own nose, you can make a blend that looks pretty and smells wonderful.

First of all, a few "fun facts":  The term "Potpourri" refers to a blend of flower petals, bark, spices, and other botanical materials that are intended to gently scent the air. It gets its name from the French words for "rotten pot". This relates to the "wet" type of potpourri, where wilted-but-not-dry flower petals are layered with salt and allowed to ferment. The wet method of making potpourri could possibly date back to ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures.

The "dry" method of potpourri-making involves using essential oils and dry plant materials. Its history is a bit shorter, since essential oils date back only to the invention of steam distillation (late Middle Ages). This is the method we'll be exploring in today's post, and in the radio show episode that goes along with it: .

(Hey, why have I never thought of posting the corresponding show link IN its blog post? Blonde moment!)

Commercial versions of potpourri tend to use unscented petals, wood shavings, and other materials with a heavy dose of synthetic fragrance oil. This type of potpourri is not usually allowed in my house, since the synthetic oils tend to give me a stuffy nose and a dull headache. We're taking the natural route, here, friends. The scent of natural essential oils may not last as long as the artificial stuff, but it's usually a lot less likely to aggravate the sinuses. To be sure you have the natural ones, look for oils that are labeled "Essential Oil" (rather than "Fragrance Oil"), and that have the words "pure and natural" on the label.

Before you start

This is a reasonably safe craft, but some of the materials should be handled with respect. Essential oils are pretty potent substances, so take care not to get them on your skin and do not take them internally. Keep essential oils out of the reach of children - some can be poisonous. Research and know what you're using. The same holds for dried materials. If you're drying your own flower petals or collecting materials from the outdoors, be sure you know what you're using.

When mixing potpourri, it's a good idea to wear a dust mask. Pollen, dust, powdered spices and fixatives... you may want to keep your lungs clear of all those, right?

And that brings us to Equipment. You will need non-reactive bowls/spoons/measuring cups that you can dedicate to craft and never use for food again. By "non-reactive", I mean stainless steel, glass, or ceramic. These substances will not react with or be changed by the essential oils. I've found some great, inexpensive stainless steel bowls at Big Lots and similar places. The Goodwill or other thrift shop is worth a try, too.

Suggested Equipment:
Dust mask
Large bowl
Mixing spoon
Eyedroppers or pipettes (available at health food stores, or the Atlantic Spice Company - see my links, to the right on this blog)
Smaller bowls in various sizes - not strictly necessary, but can be handy
Canning funnel for pouring potpourri into a jar or bags
Gallon-sized glass jars

Making Potpourri
Many of the basic parts of a Potpourri can be found at a good herb/health food store, or online:

Essential oil: The real scent of your mix. 
Fixative: Material that absorbs the essential oil and releases it. slowly. Fixatives act as a sort of preservative for the scent, and help it last longer. Some examples are orris root, calamus root, cinnamon sticks, oakmoss, frankincense tears, myrrh gum, benzoin gum, vanilla bean, rose hips, and cellulose fiber (ground corn cobs). Citrus peels, bay leaves, dried hibiscus flowers are a few milder fixatives. There are plenty more in each category - these are just some of the ones I've used most often.
Filler (both scented and unscented): The pretty and fluffy/bulky part of the mix. Fillers help create air pockets in the potpourri, and give it color and texture while holding the scent. Flower petals, leaves, spices, seed pods, small pine cones, wood shavings (especially cedar and sandalwood), dried berries, citrus peel, dried fruit slices - almost any botanical material can serve as a filler as long as you like the look. 

From left to right: Cinnamon sticks, dried hibiscus (top center), whole rose hips (in measuring cup), and a package of cinnamon-spice simmering potpourri
Basic instructions for dry potpourri:
Measure out fixative into a non-reactive bowl. With a pipette or eyedropper (or the dropper cap that comes on some essential oil bottles), measure out and gradually drip essential oils onto the fixative material(s). Place in a glass jar and shake well to blend the oil and the fixative.

Once the oil is absorbed, mix the scented fixative with the filler materials. Pour the mixed potpourri into a large glass jar (1 gallon or larger), shake well, and store in a cool dark place. Shake the mixture every day - you want every piece of your potpourri to meet up with a piece of the fixative. 

After several days, open the jar and sniff the mixture to see if you'd like to add more oil. If you do, try to drip it on the pieces of fixative and any darker-colored, woodier parts of the mix that the oil won't stain. Replace the jar lid, shake well, and store in a cool dark place for two to six weeks to cure and mellow. Be sure to shake the mixture every day or so. After the mix finishes aging, place in decorative containers with lids, or package up to give as gifts.

Adapted from Herbal Treasures by Phyllis Shaudys
Atlantic Spice/San Francisco Herb Co. sells a small, dark brown birch cone that is gorgeous in this mix!

Scented Pine-Cone mix in a candle vase
(vase purchased at a Yankee Candle store)
6 oz. assorted cones (red pine, spruce, hemlock, tamarack, or other medium- to small-sized cones)
2 oz. orange peel, dried (large-cut or cut in long strips)
1 ½ oz. orrisroot, in as large chunks as possible
1 oz. cinnamon pieces, 1- to 3-inch
1 oz. whole hibiscus flowers (for color, texture, and a weak fixative)
½ ounce bay leaves, torn up if very big (or lemon eucalyptus)
90 drops essential oil*

     Blend oils together and drip onto orrisroot. Mix with all the other ingredients and let set, covered, for 3 weeks. Shake often.
     A bag of scented cones, decorated with a Christmas-plaid ribbon, makes a thoughtful gift or an attractive bazaar or craft show item! 

* I like to use a mix of cinnamon and sweet orange oils, for a sweeter scent. If you like a less-sweet, more spicy scent, the original recipe calls for:
21 drops cinnamon oil
21 drops allspice oil
21 drops sweet orange or bergamot oil
15 drops clove oil
12 drops nutmeg oil

For a simmering potpourri, "pretty" isn't the main thing. The ingredients tend to work a little harder, with a little less "fluff" allowed! All the dry ingredients in this mix are scented, and the scent comes out beautifully in simmering water.
The essential oil isn't absolutely necessary in this mix, either, and can be omitted entirely. If you'd rather replace the allspice oil with cinnamon, orange, or lemon for a sweeter scent- have at it!

From The Pleasure of Herbs, also by Phyllis Shaudys, contributed by Dody Lyness
1 cup whole allspice
1 cup star anise
1 cup ginger root, c/s
* 1 cup sassafras bark c/s
2 cups orange peel
2 cups lemon verbena leaves
2 cups rosebuds & petals
30 drops allspice essential oil
3” cinnamon sticks

     Mix all dry ingredients (except cinnamon sticks) in a large stainless steel, glass, or ceramic bowl. Add 5 drops of allspice oil at a time, stirring well each time. Use cinnamon sticks as decoration when packaging.
     To simmer, use about 1/3 cup of mixture per cup of water. Do not leave unattended.
     * Sassafras bark can be extremely expensive, and may be omitted if desired. If harvesting your own, use the dried bark from the roots of young sassafras trees.

Pomanders are not exactly a potpourri, but have been used since medieval times. They are decorative and useful for covering up odors. The type shown here dates more from Colonial and Victorian days,  although the Colonials frequently used less-expensive apples as their base fruit. In our homes today, we can keep a closet or little-used room fragrant with the spices and citrus of a pomander.  Oranges are used most frequently, but you might also try apples, lemons, limes, crab apples or kumquats.  The smaller pomanders can be hung on the Christmas tree or tied onto packages

1 small Orange - thin-skinned variety. (doesn’t have to be pretty!)
¾ cup Cloves, whole (approx. 2.5 oz)           
½ cup Orris root powder (~ 2 oz.)                 
¼ cup ground Cinnamon (~ 1 oz.)                 
¼ cup ground Allspice (~ 1 oz.)                    
1/8 cup ground Nutmeg (~ .5 oz.)                 
Dust Mask (very important!)
Bamboo Skewer
Ribbon for hanging

The orange should be near room temperature, so it’s easier to handle.   
1.     Mix spices and orris root together. 
2.     Poke bamboo skewer through the fruit, from stem end to blossom end.  Snap it off about 1” from end of fruit, if you’d like. 
3.     Use an awl, crewel needle, or other sharp object to punch holes in the fruit, a small section at a time.  Insert stem ends of whole cloves into the holes. Cloves should be roughly ¼” apart.  The fruit skin will shrink as it dries, pulling the cloves more tightly together.    Traditional pomanders are simply covered with cloves, but you can create patterns if you’d like.
4.     Optional:  When orange is completely covered with cloves, you may brush it with an essential or fragrance oil (Orange, orange & clove, cinnamon, etc.).
5.     Roll the “cloven fruit” in the orris & spice mixture.   Place fruit and spices in a cardboard shoebox, if desired.
6.     Leave the fruit in the spices in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, rolling the fruit in the spices every day that you think about it.  I put mine on top of the fridge.  The spices will help dry and preserve the fruit.
7.     When fruit is completely dry, remove the bamboo skewer and brush loose spices off the pomander.  Using a long needle, thread a ribbon through the hole.  Make a loop in the top for hanging, and tie the bottom in a bow.  (if necessary, you might first tie the bottom around a 1” piece of skewer to keep the ribbon from pulling back up through the fruit.)
If kept in a closed place, your pomander should last for years.  The spice mixture can be re-used for additional pomanders.

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