P otpourri --the French word for "rotten pot"--defines something far more pleasant. The mixture of dried, sweet-smelling flower petals placed in decorative containers adds fragrance to the air.
In essence, potpourri is what Shakespeare called "twice-touched." Fresh flowers can be appreciated in gardens and vases, then recycled as fragrant decorations for the home.
Making potpourri is an ancient art--older than the Pharaohs--which makes it seem as if it were a mysterious and exotic process. But there's no mystery involved in making potpourri. It's as easy to follow as a cooking recipe.
There are four basic ingredients: flowers and leaves, herbs and spices, fixatives, and essential oils.
Dried flower heads or flower petals are the first requirement. Start with flowers and leaves collected from the garden or flower arrangements, or bought from a flower shop. Florists often have full-bloom flowers that are ready to be discarded or passed along to people making potpourri.
Hundreds of varieties of flowers can be used, such as roses, honeysuckle, violet, larkspur, lemon verbena, bachelor's buttons, wallflower, jonquil, hyacinth and carnations.
Since many flowers lose their fragrance after they've been dried, add herbs and spices for a natural scent. Use roots, berries, fruits or seeds of aromatic plants such as rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and mace. Also add spices found in the supermarket.
Fixatives are used in potpourri to stabilize the scent. After you've blended the ingredients, the fixative--whether in liquid or powder form--is what allows the scent to continue its smell.
Next are the essential oils. The other ingredients--flowers, spices, herbs and fixatives--contribute to the blend, but the essential oil dominates the potpourri. Using the finest essential oils will add strength and durability.
Essential oils come in natural and synthetic form. Both will vary in quality and strength. Natural oils are more expensive than synthetics, which are not always inferior.
Always try to buy the best quality, and ask questions before you buy. In recent years, natural oils such as musk (from deer), civet (from the civet cat) and ambergris (from the sperm whale) have been replaced by more environmentally sensitive oils such as benzoin, orrisroot, vetiver, oak moss and storax.
There are two ways to make potpourri: a dry method and a moist procedure. The dry method is the most common, since it is easier and quicker than the moist method. Dry potpourri can be kept scented all year by periodically replenishing it with essential oils.
The first rule for making dry potpourri is that the flowers, herbs, spices and leaves--all the ingredients except the essential oil--must be completely dry. Petals should have the crispness of cornflakes. Even a trace of dampness in any of the original ingredients can cause mildew and leave you with a sorry mess instead of scented potpourri.
Because dry potpourri should look as beautiful as it smells, pick elements that add color, shape and texture.
Roman chamomile is one of the few white flowers that does not dry brown, so its whiteness makes the other colors seem more vivid by contrast. This is a good choice for a "soft," feminine-type potpourri fragrance, such as rose.
To assemble a dry potpourri, you will need:
* A kitchen scale that indicates ounce measure. Even though some recipes call for "cupfuls" or "handfuls," use ounce measurements.
* A mortar and pestle such as those used to crush kitchen herbs. A stone mortar set is preferable to wood, which absorbs oils.
* Several wooden spoons specifically made for potpourri. Do not use spoons you use for cooking or you will mix flower and food tastes and smells.
* One or more glass or glazed pottery mixing bowls for mixing. Plastic and wooden bowls absorb the oils and should be avoided.
* An eyedropper to add the essential oils. Wash eyedroppers after each oil essence for purity.
Recipes outline the order in which the ingredients should be mixed. Follow this exactly because more delicate ingredients are generally added last to prevent them from being crushed.
With an eyedropper, scatter the drops of essential oil over the combined mixture of flowers and dry ingredients, and stir. Place the mixture in a brown paper bag that you've lined with wax paper (so the oils won't seep through). Fold and seal the top of the bag with a paper clip and place in a dry, cool place to "cure" for about two weeks.
Every other day, turn the contents gently with a wooden spoon to disperse and blend the ingredients. This allows the scents of the herbs, spices and oils to permeate each other.
After it's cured, the potpourri is ready to be placed in a decorative container.
The container should be as pretty as the mixture it holds. A sparkling glass bowl, for example, is perfect for showing off the potpourri's colors and textures. Porcelain, pottery, sterling silver bowls--either simple or ornate--and any metal are also good choices.
Potpourri that does not fit into its intended container--that is, leftovers--should be sealed in tight glass jars such as tinted Ball jars and stored in a cool, dry, dark place like a closet to prevent the color and scent from fading before you're ready to use it.
Potpourri is especially effective in small rooms, such as a study, foyer, dressing room, bedroom or bathroom. There is just one rule: Do not place it is direct sunlight, which will fade the color of the flowers.