Seventeenth-Century Rose Potpourri

Long ago and far away, housewives used to make potpourris, which were fragrant mixtures of herbs, flower petals, spices, and precious oils. The potpourris were stored in lidded jars. To fragrance a room, the lid was removed, and the delicious scent was released.

Then came 1970. All things herbal became a fad, and books about potpourris appeared, with recipes. That was fine, but then commercial potpourri products appeared–terrible things with artificial oils and wood chips, and artificially dyed plant material of suspicious origin. The scent of these potpourris was that of chemical room deodorizers. Not surprisingly, potpourris fell out of fashion.

Fast forward to now, a time when I believe we are scent-deprived. Modern perfumes, for instance, are usually a type called “ozonic.” The first ozonic perfume appeared in 1991 (Dior’s Dune). The ozonic scent is “sea-like” and fresh, but to me, it’s overdone, and almost every new perfume today seems ozonic. I had a glimpse of something different when reading a book called Jean-Louis Fargeon, Marie Antoniette’s Perfumer by Elisabeth de Feydeau. The book included a little blotter scented with a reproduction of a perfume made for Marie Antoinette. It was ravishing–warm, complex, and floral, and unfortunately only sold at the Palace of Versailles. But it did give me a glimpse into how beautiful perfumes can be.

Rose potpourri mixture

These scented thoughts were drifting around in the back of my mind when I came across a book in my library called Natural Fragrances by Gail Duff. There was a tempting-sounding recipe for a potpourri called “17th century Rose Mixture,” and before I knew it I was ordering dried rose buds, lavender, orris root, cloves, and peppermint. I had a tiny flask of pure rose oil, and soon I was mixing a big bowl of scented deliciousness. I covered the mixture and it sat wallowing in its own fumes for several weeks, and then I measured some out into a little lidded jar (see above).  The scent is complex, with the rosy violet-like scent of the rose petals, the high cool whiffs of the peppermint, and the spiciness of the cloves. As I sit here, I have a bowlful of potpourri at hand, and I keep stopping to smell it. The scent is complex and takes time to smell.

Seventeenth-Century Rose Mixture

4 ounces rose petals
2 ounces mint
2 ounces cloves, crushed
1 ounce orris root powder
4 drops rose oil

Mix ingredients in a large bowl, and store covered for several weeks before placing into jars. Ideally, use a small scale to measure the ingredients, but you can also use a Pyrex measuring cup with ounces as well as cups marked.

Since most of us don’t have huge rose gardens or beds of lavender, the ingredients will need to be purchased. I have to be honest–this is not an inexpensive craft. I purchased the dry ingredients on-line from Herbalcom.com, which has the lowest prices for bulk herbs that I have found. You do have to purchase herbs by the pound, but the above recipe uses up a lot, and any lavender or rosebuds left over can be used for sachets, or another potpourri. I got cloves at a local food store, packaged in cellophane and inexpensive. Orris root is the violet-scented root of a special iris. It adds a bit of its own scent, but also acts to absorb the scent of the other ingredients, acting as a “fixative.”

Jar with lid closed.

The single biggest expense could be the rose oil, which is made from Rosa damascena. You may be able to buy rose oil at a local health food store. This rose oil will be “cut” with another oil, such as jojoba oil. To get pure rose oil, you must venture online. Bulgarian rose oil is the most expensive, by far. Mixtures of rose oil from Morocco and Turkey are less expensive. The most inexpensive online purveyor I have found is Roots Herbal Industries & Exports, on eBay, which sells 5 ml for $30.00. Other stores on eBay also  sell rose oil, including sellers in India and Bulgaria. However, if you are just trying this for fun, you might want to use a diluted rose oil until you know whether you want to go any deeper into this craft. On the other hand, real rose oil is incredibly delicious smelling–for a few moments your brain blanks out as it is filled with the essence of hundreds of roses. Rose oil is known to have antidepressant properties.

Another approach could be to make the main fragrance note lavender, and not rose. Good-quality lavender oil is available quite inexpensively. Or, use pure lemon verbena oil.

Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose,
That youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah whence and whither flown again, who knows?

–Omar Khayyam

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2 thoughts on “Seventeenth-Century Rose Potpourri

  1. Oh, I have to try this. I used to be a “perfume-aholic” until my sense of smell developed and I realized there are very few perfumes out there that smell good – or at least how I want them to smell. That would be NATURAL, first and foremost; then light and fresh. I do wear a roll on by Pacifica (I think that’s the name) with a scent of gardenia. I do NOT wear this when gardening. I cannot even imagine what I may attract . . .

    1. The bees would love it! What surprised me about the potpourri was just how good it smelled, but also the complexity of the fragrance, I will definitely make another recipe.

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