Summer Potpourri Recipes

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The idea of mixing potpourri is to concoct a pleasant, not overpowering fragrance from sweet smelling flowers, herbs, spices, and oils.

The summer I turned 10, I spent two months with my grandmother on a 180-acre Iowa farm. I was a prissy little girl from the city brought up to sneer at anything unfamiliar or unclean, and the simplicity and strength of rural life did much to open my eyes and jolt my prejudices. Soon, thrilled and awestruck, I was watching for hours as horny bulls jumped cows in the smelly barnyard.

It’s just as well that farm life had a gentler side to balance the earthiness I found so fascinating. An important part of Grandma’s daily blitz on the farmhouse, for instance, was the uncorking of a potpourri jar for half an hour in each room, and she and I spent most of one month collecting flowers and herbs for the annual renewal of the container’s sweet scented contents. I enjoyed the ritual so much that years later I still prepare batches of potpourri for myself each season using Grandma’s potpourri recipes. I’ve even sold some jars to others, and come to think of it, the sale of potpourri mixes might be a good way for MOTHERS brood to unload all those pots left over from the last craft fair.

The idea of mixing potpourri is to concoct a pleasant, not overpowering fragrance from sweet smelling flowers, herbs, spices, and oils. Fixatives — gum benzoin and gum storax, available at drugstores — are added to preserve the colors and scents, and the mixture goes into whatever container is handy,  traditionally, a tightly closed vessel of china, pottery, or glass. (Clear receptacles must be kept away from light.) The potpourri jar is then allowed to stand open whenever you want to perfume a room.

Rose petals are the main ingredient of potpourri and you’ll need about four times as many of these as of other flowers. Gather the blossoms in the morning, after a rainless period of at least 24 hours. Loose buds, not yet past their prime, are the most fragrant.

Carry your treasures indoors and spread the petals to dry in a dark, well ventilated place. A screen, or a piece of cheesecloth suspended between two chairs, makes a convenient rack. In a day or two, pack each variety of blossom into its own screw trip canning jar with orrisroot sprinkled between layers. (If you have trouble obtaining orrisroot locally, the powdered root can be ordered from Indiana Botanic Gardens, Hammond, Indiana. — MOTHER.) To keep the colors from fading, stare the jars in a dark place until you have time to mix the brew.

Basic Potpourri Recipe

1 quart rose petals
1 cup mixed flowers, some fragrant
1 tablespoon each of one or two herbs
2 or 3 tablespoons crushed spices
Several drops, added 1 drop at a time, of 1or 2 oils
1 tablespoon each of gum benzoin and gum storax

The balance of the mixture is important, and an increase in the suggested amounts makes for a confused aroma. In particular, don’t be heavy handed with any strong scents like eucalyptus oil or mint. They’re like pungent spices in cooking, a little goes a long way.

As long as you observe the proportions, you can use any ingredients that strike your fancy. The following two very different versions of potpourri are offered just to encourage you to experiment on your own.

Aunt Wimpy’s Floral Bouquet Potpourri Recipe

1 quart rose petals
1 cup lavender
1 tablespoon rosemary
1 teaspoon each of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg
1 tablespoon each of gum benzoin and gum storax

Essence of Musk and Spice and Everything Nice Potpourri Recipe

1 quart rose petals
1 cup mixed lavender, hyacinth, lemon verbena, heliotrope, lilac, calendula, pinks
1 pinch each of bay leaf and marjoram
A few cedar arid balsam needles
1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, powdered cloves, and mace
A few drops each of brandy and attar of roses
1 tablespoon each of gum benzoin and gum storax

My own mixture is never the same from one year to the next: I do stick to the above recipes, but substitute various combinations of ingredients. Flowers, for instance, are whatever I have on hand or find in the woods. I’ve used basil, mint, sage, and thyme as herbs, and allspice and mace as spices. The oil in the concoctions can be eucalyptus, lemon verbena, peppermint, rose geranium, or rosemary. Occasionally, too, I throw in a slice of lemon or orange peel stuck with cloves.

In any case, I mix all the ingredients thoroughly with a wooden spoon, pack the scent into jars, cork the containers, and store them in a dark place for two or three weeks while the perfumes blend. Grandma’s ritual, now mine, is over for another year and the fragrances of summer are safely tucked away, to be released in the dark days of winter when I need them most.

Note: Recipes for many forms of homemade perfumery are found in Potpourris and Other Fragrant Delights by Jacqueline Hilteau, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1973 available for $4.95 from the publIsher or from MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookshelf. An appendix to this work lists sources for hard-to-get ingredients — MOTHER.