Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a shrubby perennial herb in the mint family. It is native to the Philippines and grows wild in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. It’s one of those “love it or hate it” plants, mainly because of its unmistakable strong fragrance.
Most associate patchouli with a generation of young people and their culture in the 60s dubbed “hippies.” Patchouli oil was brought to America and Europe from India during this counterculture along with marijuana, frankincense, yoga, vegetarianism and many other Indian products and practices now associated with them. . Patchouli is not a native plant in India, it was probably introduced to India around 1834, around the same time it was introduced to the West.
Patchouli is an essential ingredient in today’s perfume world. Although it cannot be detected individually, it is a common base note found in the majority of perfumes today. Patchouli oil is strong, long-lasting and an excellent fixer. Its essential oil has the rare properties of deepening and enriching and becoming more complex over time, unlike other essential oils which naturally degrade over time. Interestingly, there is no synthetic version of patchouli.
All the above information about patchouli is quite well known. Now I will share some more of its history related to rich ancient textiles, European fashion, mysterious identity and Napoleon Bonaparte which many people are not aware of.
The beautiful ornate Kashmiri woolen shawl hand-woven over many centuries in the Kashmir valley on the border of India and Pakistan (documented in the 11th century AD) is the element that introduced patchouli to the west. The yarn used was spun from the soft undercoat hair of the Changthangi goat. This yarn is extremely fine textured and is known as cashmere (a variant spelling of cashmere.) These shawls belonged to and were worn by royalty and the wealthy elite across India, the Middle East, the Near East and beyond. They found their way to Europe in the mid-1700s, brought home by West India Company officers as gifts for their wives. By the late 1700s, textile mills in Scotland, England and France were creating imitations from merino wool.
In 1800, while in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte acquired an original Kashmiri shawl and presented it to Empress Josephine, after which authentic Kashmiri shawls exploded in popularity and were highly sought after. Before 1830, real Kashmiri shawls were identified against impostors by their smell. In Kashmir, shawls were wrapped for shipment and covered with dried patchouli leaves to repel moths. The mysterious and lingering scent infused the shawls and added to the mystical and opulent glamour. The scent of the shawls became as popular as the shawls themselves, but its source was unknown.
In 1826, French perfumers realized that the source of the shawls’ mysterious smell was the dried and crumbled packing material used in shipping. It didn’t take long for the plants to be located, imported and grown in domestic greenhouses. The leaves were steam distilled for oil, which was later used to scent shawls, handkerchiefs and used in perfumes in England.
Shawls and the scent of patchouli were essential in the fashion world of society from 1800 to the early 1870s. Both fell out of favor due to the changing style of women’s dress and the association of patchouli with the license and marital infidelity. The strong fixing properties of patchouli were its downfall and its lingering smell often betrayed the culprits.
Kashmiri shawls are also accredited with the decorative pattern called “paisley”. The ancient Indian design of at least 2000 years old was usually woven into the borders of Kashmiri shawls. The pattern became known as paisley because the Scottish town of “Paisley” was a major center for European production of home-made shawls. These reproductions later became known as “cashmere shawls”, regardless of where they were made. The pattern itself has also been called cashmere.
Paisley has endured quietly over the years in fashion and decorative arts circles and finally exploded in popularity once again in the 1960s, along with the scent of patchouli oil.
I’ve never been a big fan of the smell of patchouli; however, I have fallen in love with its rich history, and must admit that the scent of a patchouli leaf rubbed between the fingers is much more pleasing to the olfactory senses than distilled essential oil.
Dawn Conrad is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, herb enthusiast, writer, and fiber artist. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.