The Fragrant Year
(1967) pp. 238-245
Helen Van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell
Pleasures of Potpourri
When the fragrant garden includes roses and herbs, it can offer pleasure well beyond the months of growth and bloom, for in potpourris the delectable melange of scents can be recorded and enjoyed for a long time. In fact, it was five Christmases ago that the blue ginger jar with its scented contents was first placed on the fireside reading table and the stirred medley of petal and leaf still smells good on winter evenings. As Alice Morse Earle observed, "the subtle fragrance of a Rose can readily conjure in our minds a dream of summers past, and happy summers to come." And so we make and treasure our potpourris, souvenirs of the herb garden and the rose border. Today the word means a "little of this and that" but potpourri originally meant "a pot for rotting" from the French pot and pourir. And such it was: a jar of rose petals damp and brown; yet when properly cured and blended, rich for years to come with the warm scent of June roses, lavender and spice.
So the rotting-pot technique remains, now called the "moist method," and it is quite simple if you grow the necessary roses. And even a small garden plot, if in full sun, can support enough bushes for at least two quarts of dried petals. Directions for both methods are given here, and once you understand the principles involved you can follow any recipe that sounds appealing.
Rose jar or sweet jar usually refers to a dry version of potpourri in which rose petals hold color but lose so much scent that oils of rose and other flowers are added, not once but whenever the aroma fades. This is the kind for which recipes abound; it is pretty and does not require especially fragrant roses, only those of lasting color. The oils and tinctures are obtained from a perfumer or other supplier and the finished blend can be quite expensive, nor is it ever a sampling of the essence of your garden.
THE ESSENTIAL ROSES
Rose petals must always form the base. Other flowers, even the most perfumed, tend to lose odor with drying, while rose petals—the right ones—hold their scent and may even seem to acquire more. The rosebuds often recommended as a fine ingredient are added not for fragrance but for the pretty color they bring to a dry sweet jar.
On the other hand, the buds of Lavandula or lavender are essential not for color but for the oil concentrated in the fuzzy calyx. Petals of pinks, mock-orange, and honeysuckle are sometimes added to moist mixtures, but if they do keep any scent, it is lost in the dominant aroma of rose. The handfuls of jasmine, violets, and orange-blossoms casually listed in old recipes make good reading but poor potpourri.
The all-important first step, then, is the selection of roses. While many gardeners prefer the everblooming Hybrid Teas and Floribundas, for potpourri these will not do. Even the most fragrant in the garden lose their scent on drying or develop an odd odor that is hardly sweet, and 'Crimson Glory' is no exception. Nor do Tea, Musk, or Multifloras endow petals with the odor we seek, no matter how fragrant they are when fresh.
The varieties richest in rose attar are the old European sorts, their hybrids as far along as the China Rose, and the more recent Rugosas. Those that flower in June give a quantity of petals within three or four weeks, while those that repeat prolong collecting through summer. We have come to prefer to do all the gathering in June, for then the petals have plenty of time to cure, lose the raw smell that develops in August, and are ready for final blending in October.
If space limits your choice to one rose for potpourri, and you have a fence or other heavy support to keep the blooming canes from breaking, select a 'Celsiana', 'Prolifera', or 'Kazanlik' (by whatever name this is offered). These three are unsurpassed. The Centifolias are next because they are less vigorous and make thinner bushes. Crested Moss and Common Moss, 'Red Provence' (or Common Cabbage, or 'Rose des Peintres'), and 'Bullata', are equally fragrant and full-petaled. The invasive patches of Rosa gallica officinalis in odd corners justify the trouble they cause by providing countless fragrant flowers, and don't overlook 'Banshee' with flowers as sweet as R. X bifera itself, but with more of them on an easier-to-handle plant. The other Autumn Damasks, 'Rose du Roi', 'Rose de Resht', 'Four Seasons' or 'Quatre Saisons', and 'Jacques Cartier', provide bloom into fall, though not in large amount.
Of the Rugosas, best are 'Belle Poitevine', 'Magnifica', and 'Hansa'. Don't underestimate loud, shapeless 'Hansa'. It is tremendously fragrant, and if you cannot abide its harsh cerise, plop every one into the 'rotting pot'. Other Rugosas smell as good, but these three have the most petals and make dense plants that never stop blooming.
Of later hybrids, 'Salet', 'Zéphirine Drouhin', 'Fantin Latour', 'General Jacqueminot', 'Reine des Violettes', 'Mme. Ernst Calvat' and 'Mme. Isaac Pereire', 'Gruss an Teplitz', and 'Conrad Ferdinand Meyer' are veritable factories of scent. There are others, certainly, but for petals by the peck, the twenty-five we have mentioned are the best we know, and by the time they are three or four years old, the bushes will richly supply your potpourri.
The time to gather flowers is in the morning after the sun has warmed them and the oils have begun to volatilize—between nine and ten o'clock on a hot day, around eleven if the weather is dull or cool. Select blooms that have just opened, or are between three-quarters and fully expanded, not faded or about to shatter. Pinch off roses with just a stub of stem and drop into bag or basket.
Indoors, have ready in any room where it can be left undisturbed a large aluminum window screen supported on two open boxes or a wooden clothes dryer. First empty the flowers onto a tray and strip off petals, discarding the green calyx or base. This is a fast, delightful job, one that children vie to help with. Next spread the petals evenly over the screen; don't be concerned if the layers seem too thick for they shrink overnight to a quarter of their fresh bulk.
THE MOIST METHOD
For the moist method, drying for about eight hours is enough, just until petals feel leathery. Next comes the preparation of the "stock." Turn the petals into an 8-quart enameled pot or a large pickle crock or any vitreous straight-sided container with a tight lid. Now comes the salting: we use kosher salt, which is coarse, free of iodine, and easy to handle. Allow one-quarter cup of salt (or a handful, as you become experienced) to two packed cups of half-dry petals. Sprinkle the salt over each additional layer of petals. The salt not only preserves, but extracts attar from the petals, even forming a brown essence at the bottom of the pot. After each day's harvest, thoroughly mix salt and petals and weight with a plate or saucer, whatever fits, and top with a stone or a plastic bag of sand.
At the end of June, add the fixative orris root—either the powdered form obtained from a pharmacy or dried chips made from your own iris rhizomes as explained in Chapter 13. Allow about one-quarter cup of either to four cups of loose petals. Like the mordant used to set color in dyeing, a fixative sets the fragrance, making it stable and long-lasting. Several fixatives can be used, including clary sage, but orris powder is easiest to obtain. And there is little danger of using too much salt or orris. The rule is, if too dry at first, add more salt; and if too moist later, check the action with orris. This forms the stock which can now be put aside, weighted and covered, until October.
Or the salting stage can continue all summer as you add fresh petals without drying but blending them in well each time. If a raw smell rises, this is to be expected; it will pass. Set with fixative in September and blend all in October. We have never had any problem with mold or mildew.
The final assembling is the great joy of making potpourri, comparable in its homely way to creating a new perfume. One fragrance dominates, others support it, while the fixative—with a scent of its own—holds all together in harmony. Rather than give a specific recipe when there are so many, we suggest proportions, and list ingredients to use and their preparation. With one quart (four cups) of stock as base, you can improvise as many combinations as you have quarts of stock, or else make one great batch.
Store the mixture in large screw-top jars to age at least six weeks before filling the potpourri jars. Containers made for potpourri usually have two lids, the inner one perforated to allow scent to escape, the outer one solid to retain it until you wish to uncover and enjoy the fragrance for a while. Most French jars have only the one perforated cover. However any attractive container can be used if it is glazed and has a snug lid. Ginger jars and sugar bowls serve beautifully, but we have come to prefer a rather squat vessel with a wide mouth so we can occasionally stir the contents by hand, for even though a monochromatic brown, it is pleasant to study while inhaling.
In the final mixing, one level tablespoonful of spice to one quart stock is quite enough; otherwise the scent of rose is overwhelmed. We recall that our first attempt smelled more of apple pie than flowers.
The amount of herbal lavender you add depends on how much you like it. Allow one-half cup for a hint, two cups for a half-and-half lavender-rose bouquet. Lavender buds are most fragrant just before opening, but we cannot bear to strip the bushes then so we wait until they have given two to three weeks of color.
Add dry, aromatic leaves cautiously. Some are so pungent, you must measure by the tablespoonful. Fresh leaves of special favorites may be added at the salt stage, letting your nose be guide.
Buy spices whole. Then grate or crush to a "grosse powder" with mortar and pestle. Cloves, nutmeg and mace, vanilla bean, cardamon, even ginger and black pepper can be used, also slivers of orange and lemon rind dried in a warm oven and mashed.
Large leaves napped with glands are cut to pieces and dried. This is the way to handle Salvia dorisiana and S. rutilans, 'Dr. Livingston' and rose-geraniums. Other leaves may be dried whole and stored in separate jars until October; leaves of any of these may be used—angelica, costmary, calendula, lemon-verbena, sweetbrier rose, sassafras, lemon balm, monarda, lemon and caraway thyme, and bayberry leaves and berries. A little mint goes a long way. Orange-mint is best, peppermint preferable to spearmint, and pennyroyal is potent. Culinary herbs are sometimes recommended—thyme, bay, marjoram, rosemary—but we prefer to use them in a separate mixture of herbs alone. Sweet basil is a delightful exception often added to our floral potpourri.
Every one of these ingredients can be grown in your garden, or found in pharmacy or supermarket. Do try making potpourri with these alone before experimenting with expensive extras and exotic oils. A true, moist potpourri does not need artificial additions, and after a year, it actually increases in fragrance. We came upon one recipe once that called for two gallons of rose petals, plus eleven different floral oils, one of them oil of rose. It might as well have used wood shavings instead of petals.
THE DRY METHOD
In the dry method, color and shape of flowers come first; any scent lacking in roses or lost in drying is replaced by oils. Thorough drying is essential. The rose petals left leathery on the screen should now be moved to a sheet of newspaper, otherwise when handled crumbly-dry they tend to sift through the screen. As white roses (and all white flowers) turn brown, and dark red ones turn black, fragrant pink and rose-red varieties are best. Add yellow and light scarlet petals for gaiety, and also, just for color, some tiny salmon buds of 'Margo Koster' or the dried blue flowers of larkspur.
The quicker dried, the closer the color holds to that of fresh flowers. As summer air is often too humid for natural drying, petals can be treated in a barely warm oven (150°F). Where form is important or material thick, as with rose buds, small whole roses or other entire blooms, or leaves like rose-geranium, dry them layered in a deep box of borax or silica-gel. Try to avoid anything powdered or finely ground, for as your pretty concoctions are to be used in glass apothecary jars or sachet bags, fine particles begrime glass and sift through cloth.
The lavender and leaves suggested for true potpourri may be used here as well as flowers and sprigs that would be wasted in the moist procedure. Add extras with discretion; though fragrant when fresh, most have little odor when dry, and are used only for color and interest. Try whole violets and violas, small single or double pinks, Dahlberg daisies, primroses; florets of rosemary, monarda, Salvia superba, lilacs; tips of thyme, lavender, and marjoram in bloom; petals of calendula, nasturtium, and chrysanthemum.
When all is dry, store each material in a separate glass jar until you have enough of everything to begin mixing; there is no problem of timing, as with the moist method. Resist the temptation to use a little of everything in your first potpourri. If rose petals form the main bulk, then add only one or two kinds of scented leaves, the fixative, perhaps a little fruit peel, fragrant beans or seeds, and two or three spices. Endless variations can be played upon this simple theme.
In dry mixtures, the proportions of spice and fixative are slightly higher because of their necessary coarse texture. Allow a mounded tablespoonful of spice, and at least half a cup of fixative to each quart of dry rose petals. It is important to allow enough fixative. For variety of scent, you may want to use—in addition to home-grown and prepared orris root—clary and calamus, some imported storax, vetiver-root, and gum benzoin. These may be purchased from potpourri specialists.
If you use only the petals of the roses that we suggest, with enough fixative no oils should be necessary. However, oils of lavender, mint, rose, geranium, orange blossom, sandalwood, lemon, and jasmine are available. These will give you an idea of the variety of concentrates you can obtain from the same specialists, to augment a weakly perfumed blend. Use the oils with extreme care by the counted drop, only one oil to each small batch. Otherwise you may end up with something too strong for pleasure.
Once combined, the dry blends do need aging. Store them loose in glass preserving jars for at least three months, shaking the jars now and then. They increase in fragrance the first two years but have not the longer staying power of the moist potpourri.
The same flowers and herbs for dry potpourri can be used in sachets or sweet bags and with a like proportion of spice and fixative. The combinations are quite simple if scented leaves predominate instead of rose petals, and only one spice is added. When rose buds are used they need artificial perfuming. Organdy is the usual cloth but any kind of close-woven, sheer material may be used. Because the contents are exposed to air and so lose most of the scent within a year, a boost with oils or a favorite cologne becomes necessary.