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The pleasures of potpourri

by Maryjane Butters
| November 7, 2010 8:00 PM

"Potpourri? I'll call it a symbol of the things we hold onto throughout our lives, little things we cherish," writes Shery Jespersen on the Ranch Farmgirl Blog (rfgblog.maryjanesfarm.org). "I've made potpourri for many, many years. It lets me bring the outside inside. Each little petal, flower, twig or natural trinket is like a pleasant thought or a memory. I have a large birch-bark basket, and its sole purpose is to collect my sentimental coffee table 'mulch.' Every year or so, I toss out the old stuff and start over with a fresh batch, and then add to it over the year ... pine cones and flowers from trail rides, roses from my beloved, orange pomanders from Christmastime ... etc., etc."

Shery's metaphor is perfect, don't you think? Potpourri, in all its understated loveliness, can provide so much more than mere room perfume, particularly when you make it yourself. By gathering, mixing and coaxing sumptuous fragrances from bits and pieces of nature, we also create a ritual to remind ourselves how to best cultivate our own lives. It's all about picking stuff that pleases us, and using that variety to brew peace and pleasure for ourselves and those around us.

What's in a name?

Before potpourri was a synthetically perfumed staple in discount stores, it was a labor of love that originated sometime around the dawn of history (traces of rose-petal potpourri have been found in excavations of ancient Egypt). But with a dollop of art and a pinch of science, potpourri-making became a wildly popular pastime in 17th-century France. Starting with delicate flowers in the spring, and elaborated upon with herbs and other sweet-smelling tidbits throughout the summer, potpourri was a sort of recycled garden in its own right. As the months passed, the gathered goodies would wilt and ferment in a crock. In the fall, Victorian practitioners would add salt, spices and natural scent stabilizers before unveiling their creation to the air. This process spawned the French term "potpourri," which actually means "rotten pot!"

Some modern potpourri enthusiasts still employ a process of fermentation to create their "scent-sations," but there are simpler ways to go about it that don't require rotting. Whether you're a fan of dried potpourris or the fresh "simmer-on-the-stovetop" variety, I have two redolent recipes that are guaranteed to please this holiday season. You can experiment with collecting some of the sweet-smelling ingredients that linger in your yard, the woods or a friend's waning flower garden. To supplement your local harvest, order quality components that are organic and/or wild-harvested from Mountain Rose Herbs (www.mountainroseherbs.com). Mountain Rose offers bulk quantities for those of you who are already thinking Christmas gifts!

Sugar and Spice Potpourri

3 cups dried rose petals

2 cups lavender buds

1 cup dried lemon verbena

1 tablespoon ground allspice

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon whole cloves

1/2 cup anise star pods

2 tablespoon powdered orange peel

2/3 cup orris root powder (This powdered root of the iris plant acts as a natural scent fixative to prolong the fragrance of your ingredients, and it smells heavenly, too.)

Combine all ingredients in a large crock or jar with a tight-fitting lid. Seal and store for 6 weeks in a dark, warm place (your water heater closet or a cabinet next to the oven). Gently shake the jar contents daily. After 6 weeks (or just before Christmas), transfer potpourri portions to decorative jars or sealed bags that can be gifted or opened when you wish to send sweet smells throughout your home. Close container to recharge scent, or add a few drops of your favorite essential oil on occasion.

Simple Simmering Potpourri

This fresh-from-the-peel potpourri is ready in minutes, perfect for spur-of-the-moment entertaining.

4 cups apple cider

1 orange, cut into 1/2-inch slices

3 whole cinnamon sticks

1 tablespoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a soup pot and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered, adding cider as needed to keep the pot from going dry.

Learn more

To delve deeper in to this aromatic art, pick up a used copy of the book "Potpourri and Fragrant Crafts" by herbalist Betsy Williams (Readers Digest, 1996). The book is no longer in print, but its detailed instructions and photographs make it a must-buy if your passion is potpourri.

Copyright 2010, MaryJane Butters. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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