It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas. Close your eyes and imagine for a minute the unforgettable, heartwarming smells of Christmas: pine trees, bayberry candles, cinnamon cookies, clove pomanders and bowls of apples and oranges. This is also the time of year when stores stock many varieties of potpourri — a dried mixture of scented flowers, herbs and spices — but I find the price outrageous! So why not make your own homemade Christmas potpourri to put all around the house or give as a gift? It's easier than you think and a fun activity for everyone to enjoy. (Children can help with almost every step, and you can get a break from those endless cookie-making sessions.) A few walks in the woods, a dip into the stash of preserved flowers and other materials you may have dried over the summer, plus some fruit rinds, spices and oils, and you're on your way to having the fun of creating your own potpourri.
No two homemade potpourris are exactly alike (the word itself means mixture or collection). The one you create will definitely be your own original mix, depending on what you can forage in your area of the country. On the supply list which follows, I've listed the ingredients I use for my Christmas potpourri, but check within the parentheses for alternative choices. But don't stop there: If something else appeals to you, by all means be creative and try it.
All year long, before I start creating my own mix for the holidays, I check out the potpourri for sale in stores and catalogs to see what appeals to me and what new things I might want to try. Lots of commercial potpourris are made entirely of wood chips and one large pine cone and, in my opinion, look faded in color and have little aroma. If you can’t smell the potpourri through the packaging, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it.
I start gathering the ingredients for my holiday potpourri at the end of November. This assures my having plenty on hand all December to scent my home and create gifts. I never limit myself just to what smells good, though. Color and texture are equally important to making potpourri look rich, interesting and eye-catching. Greens, reds, a touch of white and woodsy browns in different hues and textures give lots of visual appeal to your mixture, along with the terrific scent.
A brisk woods walk for some winter foraging is a good starting point for this project. Remember to take several plastic bags, a large basket with a handle and some hand clippers. Warm work gloves, too, are helpful for grabbing hold of frosty branches. Start first with some white cedar or arborvitae — two or three branches of each will do.
Then move on to the hemlock grove for some of its tiny pine cones. If you don't find them on the tree, they may have fallen off already. Look under the tree; if the cones are wet from being on the ground, take them home to dry in a moderate oven until they open.
Next, check stream banks and old logs for a sheet of sphagnum moss. Old logs are also a good place to find small pieces of fungus that are easily pulled off. While there, check for some thin bark on beech trees, which looks interesting shredded in potpourri. If you're lucky, squirrels may have left a couple of nuts from a hickory tree; nab those as well. Finally, check around for a holly bush — what's Christmas without holly, after all? When you get home, spread your goods out on cookie sheets and let them dry for two or three days in a toasty corner of your home.
Be sure to cut your white cedar and arborvitae into small pieces, as it will dry more quickly this way. And while you're at it, this is a good time to take several oranges and lemons, remove the peels, and tear them into small pieces; they can dry right alongside everything else. It's very important to dry all the ingredients completely, as any moisture left in your mixture can cause spoiling or a bad aroma.
If you've dried and stored away any flowers, berries or nuts over the summer, you may be able to use some now. Dried red celosia, rose petals, gladiolus, Queen Anne's lace, rose hips, Hawthorne berries and white globe amaranth will all be great for your homemade Christmas potpourri. If you don't have stick cinnamon, bay leaves and whole cloves in your spice cabinet, they can be purchased at most any grocery store.
The final touch to your holiday mixture will be your essential oils and a fixative. The oils will give a delicious scent to the potpourri, and the fixative allows the scent to last months longer. I usually use orrisroot powder as my fixative, but gum benzoin is one other alternative. Most crafts stores carry both of these supplies, but I order mine from Nichols Garden Nursery. When buying, keep in mind that your initial oils and fixative purchases should last you quite a while.
Now that you have all your ingredients, start mixing…
Supplies Needed (check parentheses for alternative ingredients):
1. Make sure all materials to be used in your potpourri are dried completely. This is very important to the final product.
2. Taking one ingredient at a time, start filling a 2-quart container. Use all your supplies except the orrisroot and essential oils — you'll be mixing and storing your potpourri in the same container. After I’ve added four items, I usually mix them gently with a wooden spoon to distribute them evenly, and make the mix look more attractive. I then add four more, mix again, and so on, until all the ingredients are used.
3. Now it’s time to add your fixative and oils. Remove half of your potpourri mixture and place it in another dish. To scent the batch more evenly, add your oils and fixative to half of the batch at a time.
4. Take 1 tablespoon of orrisroot powder and sprinkle it evenly over the half of the batch in your container. Then add 2 ½ drops of each oil, distributing evenly.
5. Using a wooden spoon, mix the scented potpourri gently to blend the oils and fizative thoroughly. It should start to smell really good!
6. Now pour the half you reserved back into the container on top of the scented half. Add 1 tablespoon of orrisroot powder and 2 ½ drops of each of the oils.
7. Mix the top of the batch thoroughly, then mix the entire batch together.
8. Place a tight-fitting lid on your potpourri container.
9. Store potpourri while it is aging in a dry, dark area for three to four weeks. During this time, open occasionally, stir gently several times and add more essentials oils if you desire a stronger smell.
10. After two or three weeks, place your Christmas potpourri in jars, bowls or colorful sachets, or heat a pan of water on your stove and add 1 cup of potpourri to give your home a heavenly holiday scent. Potpourri crockpots are handy to scent all rooms of the house, too.
It’s a good idea to start your own homemade Christmas potpourri in early December, but my “mellowing batch” hardly makes it through the three to four week waiting period without me stealing a handful to heat on the stove or to arrange in a dish on the kitchen table to help me get into the Christmas spirit. You should, however, allow your mixture to mellow. You probably noticed when you mixed your potpourri that it smelled rather strong — the three to four weeks allows for that aroma to soften a bit.
Please take note that my recipe is for a 2-quart batch, enough for four medium-size open bowls or 15 to 20 small sachets. Simply double or triple the recipe if more is desired.
As you’re getting your Christmas list together, plan to make extra sachets or jars filled with potpourri — they make wonderful gifts for unexpected guests. A large wooden bowl with a lace hanky or napkin draped inside filled to the brim with your luscious mixture makes a thoughtful gift, sure to be displayed and appreciated long after the holidays pass. When giving an open bowl of potpourri, just cover with plastic wrap and then gift wrap as usual.
Potpourri in sachets can last a year or more, while closed jars that are opened for occasional scenting will last longer. To revive an open bowl of potpourri (mine starts to fade around July), just add a tablespoon of fixative and three or four drops of your oils and stir gently. If you find something you want to add to your mixture, dry it thoroughly and just toss it into the batch.
A real treat, though, is simmering potpourri on your stove after a day of Christmas shopping or during decorating time. I also keep some on hand for when unexpected guests drop by: Not only do I have something to give them as they hit the door, but the great smell is so inviting that it doesn’t matter so much what the house looks like!
Just as important to producing an old-fashioned holiday atmosphere as decorating the tree, hanging stockings and garland, baking lots of goodies and wrapping gifts, filling your home with bowls of colorful and aromatic homemade Christmas potpourri can become a tradition you whole family looks forward to.
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