The sense of smell can evoke powerful memories. One whiff of a familiar aroma can transport us to another place and time. Researchers have found that when we first smell something the information is stored in our brain’s memory cortex. It’s also passed to the brain’s limbic system that controls emotions, memory, and behavior. With our sense of smell’s ability to touch our inner self, it’s no wonder that the mixture of scented botanicals we call potpourri continues to weave its magic as the fragrance wafts through the air each holiday season.
As the weather chills and we spend more time indoors, potpourri becomes a welcome part of home life. Lift the lid on a potpourri jar and the room is filled with a gentle fragrance. If you’re planning on buying some for your home here are three tips for getting the good stuff.
But first a quick review of what makes potpourri. Quality potpourri is composes of three things: aromatics, essential oils, and a fixative. Aromatics are leaves, flowers, and roots that naturally exude scent. Roses, jasmine, and lavender are the three most popular. Essential oils are extracts from scented materials such as lemon grass, patchouli, rosemary, and ylang-ylang. A fixative is something that absorbs the essential and holds or “fixes” the oils in the potpourri. Expert blenders of potpourri usually use orris root chips, sweet flag chips, or oakmoss to fix the essential oils they use.
The staying power of potpourri is dependent on the quality of ingredients used to make it. Thirty years ago, potpourris were blended with real herbs, spices, and essential oils and sold in specialty herb shops. Today many of the mixes for sale at drug stores are made of attractive but unscented flowers, dried seedpods, and wood shavings, all sprayed with an artificial perfume. It looks good and will be fragrant for perhaps a week. But if you want a more lasting mix pass by these cheap substitutes and look for potpourri made with true aromatics.
Avoid buying potpourri mixtures packaged in cellophane. Most of these are not airtight and have been losing fragrance ever since they left the factory floor. The essential oils in potpourri are volatile and disperse easily. Their fragrance will quickly evaporate if left in the open air. The best storage for potpourri, whether in the store or at home, is an airtight container. This holds in the essential oils for later enjoyment. Then when you’re ready to release the fragrance, open the lid, stir the ingredients with your fingers, and take a deep breath.
Last, but not least, you need to buy a potpourri that has a fragrance you can live with. Get close to an open jar of potpourri and inhale deeply. If the scent seems harsh or makes you cough it’s possible that the scented oils are artificial. Sneezing is also a bad sign. Some potpourri ingredients are botanically related to common allergens you wouldn’t want in your home.
So what’s my favorite holiday mixture? I combine equal parts of cinnamon bark, whole allspice berries, whole cloves, and dried orange peel. This can be used several ways. Steeped in hot water, it makes a nice simmering potpourri. When stored in an enclosed jar, it can be kept by the fireplace and opened when the family is gathered to enjoy the warmth of the hearth. And since all the ingredients are edible, a few tablespoons can be simmered in a gallon of apple juice for a wonderful warming spiced cider.
Whatever your fragrance preferences, there’s a potpourri for you. A jar of this fragrant mixture will enable you to enjoy the scents of the season all throughout the year.