ISSUE 1  |  Office Space

Modern Potpourri: The Irresistible Fragrance of a Rotten Pot

January 06, 2014 11:00 AM

BY Alexa Hotz

The term “potpourri” might evoke an image of plastic bags full of wood chips, cinnamon sticks, and sliced persimmons–their color pumped up with dye and drenched in synthetic fragrance. That kind of potpourri is meant to mask the air of a room, and its makers likely have little interest in the subtlety of scent. The kind I want to talk about is a bouquet of slightly shriveled organic material, left to stew in its musky oil over time before getting dished out in ceramic vessels around the house.

The first documented use of the term “potpourri” was in 1749, but the scented blends were likely present well before that, used throughout Europe to counteract unpleasant household odors. The French translation of the term literally means, “a rotten pot,” derived from the Latin, putrescere, meaning “to grow rotten.” True potpourri demands an acceptance of rot, decay, and fermentation. Off-putting at first perhaps, but just think of other delicacies rendered delicious the same way: sauerkraut, alcohol, and fungi. In fact, the most potent, evocative ingredients in a fragrance often come from the world of decay. Take oud, also known as agarwood, for example. The dark and fragrant resin forms over mold found in an Aquilaria tree. The first documentation of its use is seen in Indian Sanskirt Vedas, and it is still used prolifically in modern perfume.

Today, a potpourri revolution is on the rise. For me, it all began with Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a Florentine pharmacy founded in 1221 by Dominican friars who have been serving up batches of their potpourri since its inception.

Photography by Alexa Hotz for Gardenista.

My first real exposure to the friars’ creation was in the Paris flat of Lucile and Clarisse Demory last spring. Clarisse brought back the mixture from a recent stay in the Tuscan mountains. The blend is a secret recipe of herbs and flowers collected by hand from the Florentine hills. It is then soaked in natural essence in earthenware jars and sealed with wax. 

Aged underground for several months before packaging, the Santa Maria Novella Potpourri ($35) is made without synthetic fragrance or pesticides and has the added advantage of repelling moths and insects.

I’m also interested in making my own blend í  la 17th century France, when fresh herbs and flowers were set out to wilt before being embalmed in a course sea salt. To make such a blend, flowers should be picked during times of low humidity as moisture gives way to excessive rot.

Flowers can then either be salted or soaked in essence before their fermentation begins. Naturally fragrant herbs and florals to consider are damask or cabbage roses, lavender, tuberose, sage, rose geranium, rosemary, gardenia, and lemon verbena.

The art of room aromatics is unique to each home and individual; I suggest potpourri for an understated circulation of fragrance. It’s best if placed into a permeable vessel (unglazed ceramic or stone) with a little character (a thrift shop find, say) and left to slowly diffuse. Or it can be poured into cotton sachets to be tucked behind picture frames and in between clothing (advisory: let the oils dry out before contact with fabric).

Be it from Dominican friars or your own tailored blend, organic potpourri is a turn away from synthetic scent, toward celebrating the cycle of decay and reaping its olfactory benefits.

For those drawn to dried flowers, see our posts on Fennel Seed Harvesting and Dried Hydrangeas, Two Ways.

Another way to bring fragrant flowers into the home? Babylonstoren’s Tussie Mussie for the Bath.