In Pursuit of Patchouli


In the mid 1990s I moved to NYC  for graduate school and there was much to love: I could walk everywhere, there were independent movie theaters, grocery stores were stocked with Asian pears, olives, unusual chocolate, litchi nuts, litchi-flavored gummy Japanese candy, donut shaped peaches, excellent teas, Portuguese rolls, and fondue in packages. I regularly called home to describe my trips to the grocery. There was opera and Summer Stage in Central Park, the yoga studio I attended was a quiet, spartan space with florescent lighting and a curtain that served as a changing room. There was Body and Soul in Tribeca—a Sunday daytime dance club that my best friend disappeared into all afternoon. No velvet ropes, no degrading lines, no alcohol-- just a stretch of lovely music for dancers in sneakers.

There were also the startling things: Giuliani was mayor and there were large rodents. On early summer mornings park workers whizzing through Riverside Park on golf carts squeezed streams of industrial strength synthetic deodorizer to keep the park fresh. Independent book sellers were drying out and investment banking drove young people very hard. The vintage shops were expensive and people spoke in aggressive tones.

I arrived frumpy. My first week of classes I wore a 1950s charm bracelet to the library and met with reproachful stares. That same first week, I entered a subway car on the 1/9 wearing patchouli and a student looked up and asked "What is that stink? It's like those shops on St. Mark's where they're all smoking pot.” Marijuana was never my thing, and my friends who smoked it never wore patchouli. What else? Fevers ran high for ubiquitous designer handbags. Those with less money but equal desire for the same bags made trips downtown to Canal street seeking out appreciable 'copies'. Or maybe they were real; Saviano's 2006 Gomorra made it forever impossible to spot or denounce a genuine or fake in the corporate fashion world.

The history of consumption is replete with such fevers; if it isn't one thing it's another. But can you imagine if in order to draw the “copied” handbags closer to the feeling of wealth, security, and status that they symbolized, they were infused with a scent and that scent was patchouli? What if a correctly sewn label, or a hallmark stitch indicating the intellectual property of the maker was not the benchmark of authenticity, but rather a scent that would validate the experience of the user?

I don't know when patchouli first made its way to Europe, but its presence there in the early to mid 1800s had significant consequences. Patchouli arrived in the form of crisp and fragrant dried leaves placed in the packing material of silk fabrics and shawls woven in and exported from India. In the early 1800s, Napoleon is said to have acquired some of the patchouli-wrapped Indian shawls in Egypt (some speculate that among them were Tibetan goat-haired shahtoosh shawls) and gave them to Josephine de Beauharnais. Apparently she liked them so much that she had to have more. Many more. Soon, Indian shawls were a coveted luxury for the French elite. Patchouli leaves were used to deter insects and worms from destroying the precious fabric and garments during shipping. In production, they had also been placed on the fabrics to preserve whatever artisans had already woven. Patchouli being patchouli, a fixative and now of course widely used as a lasting base note in perfumery, it remained in the shawls and silks-- perfuming them through and through.

1/2 a stereograph: "Humble Shawl Weavers in Kashmir" ca. 1903

The shawls were special acquisitions in their own right, but the scent of patchouli with which they were imbued became a vital part of the experience. The pleasure of owning them was a synaesthetic one, an amalgam of the visual, tactile, and the olfactory senses. Coarser woolen shawls of similar styles began to made in France and in Scotland, but they didn't feel the same. And more importantly, they didn't smell the same. What of the patchouli—the distinctive fragrance that was both a sensual delight and denoted the special export value of the fabrics?

L'Imperatrice Josephine,  Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823)

Immortalized wearing one of her many patchouli-scented Indian shawls.


By 1826, French perfumers had discovered the source: those dried leaves in the packing. They imported patchouli plants, grew them in hothouses, distilled the leaves to make the oil or perfume and fragranced the shawls. Some were ambivalent about the discovery, but now the shawls were really selling. W.J Hooker writes in his Hooker's J. Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany, 1849:

"An ingenious writer, in the Gardener's Chronicle (1849, p. 645), on the odours of plants, remarks — 'It has been said, by an eminent French perfumer, that the odour of Patchouli was a ' disgrace to the art '; such, however, is the result of fashion, that a year or two ago no lady of ton was perfect unless she was enveloped, as it were, in the fragrance of this plant, the odour of which is very peculiar — a sort dry, mouldy, or earthy smell — not very enticing, certainly, by description, and much less so in reality...In the vegetable world it is the most permanent of odours. The origin of its use is this, A few years ago, real Indian shawls bore an ex-travagant price, and purchasers could always distinguish them by their odour ; in fact, they were perfumed with Patchouli. The French manufacturers at length discovered this secret, and used to import this plant to perfume articles of their make, and thus palm off home-spun shawls for real India! "(330).

Was this simply early marketing with fragrance, and/or another story of copies? Was it a case of empty-headed women feeling the need to consume fashion to find their perfection? There's more to it. As far as copies go, if they were going to be made, France was the place to do it. By the beginning of 19th century,  sumptuary laws that had restricted luxe consumption to the elite classes were defunct. This meant that journeymen, shopkeepers, domestic servants, artisans, and other non-elite members of the laboring class were allowed to buy, own, and wear objects that were once strictly out of reach. And they did. As guilds were abolished in 1791, methods of production were also less restricted, and there was greater space for innovation and technological developments. Luxury or rather “populuxe” goods—cheaper versions of luxury goods, arguably of still great quality—gold watches, furniture, woolen shawls—were created in less expensive ways and met a demand. (Cissie Fairchild “The Production and Marketing of Populuxe Goods in Eighteenth-Century Paris", Consumption and The World of Goods, 1993)

I don't know if French patchouli-perfumed woolen shawls were only passed off as Indian at high prices or if they were also sold at more affordable prices as 'populuxe' goods to the working class. And, despite the belief that the fragrance of patchouli was meant to authenticate a real Indian shawl, it is really hard to say which 'patchouli' anyone was smelling at any given time.

There are many possible ways the 'authentic' patchouli might have smelled. This is because: 1) Dried leaves smell different than the oil. As chemicals can be lost in the distillation process, plant material and distilled oil are not always chemically identical. Thus, a patchouli oil or perfume that was used to fragrance shawls would have had an effect different than that of dried leaves. 2) Patchouli changes as it ages, and indeed along with sandalwood, vetiver, frankincense, it is one of the few essential oils that does age beautifully. 3) Patchouli is a fixative, which means it fixes other scents that combine with it, such as: the odor of the wool or whatever might have been mixed in with the oil by perfumers. This fixative quality is important to remember for those who dislike the patchouli “stink”, and associate it with unwashed young ones of a certain time with time on their hands. Of course patchouli has an earthy, herbal smell, but mixed with B.O, it can magnify, not simply mask it. 4) It isn't entirely clear which species of patchouli were responsible for marking the woolen shows as authentic Indian.

In 1837, Francisco Manuel Blanco, the Spanish Friar and botanist who was assigned to the Philippines registered Pogostemon cablin as Mentha cablin Blanco in his Flora de Filipinas. It became known as the source of true patchouli. Considered native to the Philippines where it was known as cablan, it is truly divine and the commercial patchouli that is used in perfumery and aromatherapy. At various times, P. cablin has also been called: P. patchouly, P. patchouli, P suavis, P. patchouli var. suavis, and P. javanicus.

But the patchouli of the early French shawls might have come from any number of species in the Pogostemon genus that were used medicinally and cosmetically in India and Sri Lanka for centuries. They could have been Pogostemon heyeanus, or P. benghalensis and/or P. plectranthoides, or P. pubescens, all of which are related to P. cablin (and all of which belong to the mint or Lamiaceae (Labiatae) family).

If we can trust the records, (one can't always), the species P. cablin didn't even make it to India until 1834 (only three years before Blanco described it), where it was supposedly introduced to Nathaniel Wallich, Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. In the Bombay markets, all the Indian patchoulis were sold under the single vernacular names: "pachpat" in Bengali, in Tamil "pacchilai:, from "pacchai" meaning green and "ilai", leaf, or in Malayalum: "pacholy". When P. cablin showed up, it was close enough to be given the same name.

It is unlikely that P. cablin  was the Pogostemon species to perfume the early shawls that the French adored. The plants native to South Asia would have been the ones to make the trips to Europe to protect precious textiles. Indeed in 1815, according to French botanist Rene Louiche Defontaines, there were Pogostemon plants in the hothouses of the Jardin des Plantes that were sourced from South India. Among them may have been P. plectranthoides.

It's quite possible then that the French elite weren't enjoying P. cablin at all until the mid 1800s, but rather a collection of other Pogostemon species. Still, it isn't out of the question. P. cablin had been used in China for centuries medicinal purposes. There, Guang Huo Xiang (P. cablin) was apparently introduced between (420-589 BCE) and had been cultivated as a medicinal plant for the spleen, stomach, and lung meridians since the 11th c. in Guangdong Province. As such it was called Guang Huo Xiang to distinguish it from Huo Xiang (Agastache rugosa), an entirely different genus used for similar purposes. Given the trade routes, leaves and things could have gotten around. In any case, we do know that by 1844 the P. cablin was the patchouli import of choice, with Chinese leaves shipping to London via New York.

Part of the point here is that patchouli, or the patchoulis rather, are real plants and  outstanding herbs--a fact underscored by the strong love/hate reaction that people have to it. As such, their effects can be significant on us.  P. cablin patchouli (the one that I am most familiar with), has a complex molecular structure and is a natural sedative, known to uplift and balance the emotions. It is a most eloquent plant, and I do think that when we use essential oils, we have the chance to opt into a special communication with plants.

In Art of Aromatherapy, Robert Tisserand writes of the 19th century German doctor, Gustav Fechner who wondered “could not flowers communicate with each other by the very perfumes they exude, becoming aware of each other's presence in a way more delightful than by means of the verbiage of humans which is seldom delicate or fragrant except, by coincidence, in lovers” (16).

Fechner speaks of flowers and the potential of real perfumes to communicate beyond the scope of human speech. In the case of the French craze for Indian shawls, the synaesthetic experience was not predetermined, but an outcome of necessary preservation measures. But there was clearly in play another factor: a sense of mystery. It took some time to understand just what that fragrance was, cultivate the plants, and produce the essential oils. Talk about slow beauty.

By comparison today's scent marketing seems overdetermined. Now brands try to engineer emotional connections with consumers by pumping signature synthetic perfumes into hotels and stores through air ducts in the ceiling to “better deploy” the “multisensory experience” in a “uniform, more consistent, safer fashion” (Ad Age, “Dollars & Scents: From Clothes to Cars to Banks, Brands Seek Distinction Through Fragrance How Marketers Are Selling With a Signature Sensory Experience.” 12/9/14).  It's no wonder that Many Aftel, the natural perfumer of Berkeley's Afterlier Perfumes  believes that “most people...have only ever had the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s.’’ (NYTimes, 2/3/16)

Tisserand goes on to write of our sense of smell:

"The sense of our distant ancestors were probably more acute than ours. Civilisation may bring refinement in some senses, but it cannot increase the acuity of our basic instincts and the perception of our senses. We do not use our nose to 'smell' the direction of the wind, the whereabouts of an enemy, or the tracks of an animal, although there are a few tribes in South America who can track by smell. Smelling fine perfumes may increase our appreciation of sophisticated scents but we have lost the ability to smell an enemy, a poisonous herb, or a particular disease. It has been said before that the sense of smell is very closely linked to the proverbial 'sixth sense'"(18).

So, to the “ingenious writer in the 1895 Gardener's Chronicle”: Maybe the ton ladies who loved patchouli weren't merely being empty-headed and ton; maybe they were being sensitive. And to the student who objected to my wearing patchouli on the subway: at least you were able to smell it.

Patchouli at Balbec

I love patchouli. I have used P. cablin for over thirty years because it is bottomless and earthy and a deep green that doesn't mean any one thing to me. It is more like the spaces between thoughts. And now I've become curious about other patchoulis,

At Balbec wildcrafted P. cablin is one of the few aromatherapeutic oils that we use because it is a safe for skin care and has a long history of use in traditional medicine. It is balancing, good for both dry and oily skin, beneficial when treating acne, dermatitis, eczema, and healing scars. At present we use it in our Moroccan Clay and Yogurt Cleanser in combination with geranium. Sometimes I think that the blend of patchouli and geranium evokes that old mint, Sen Sen, which was flavored with patchouli.  Kind of. Have you ever tried it?  

And quite soon we will have the pleasure of releasing  Balbec's hair oil, CHOULI.  It is a nourishing blend of herbs and  botanicals  treasured in the Japanese and Indian traditions for hair care. Chouli features vintage patchouli and hinoki (Japanese Cypress), and is absolutely beautiful. It is named for "Chul", which means hair in Bengali, and "Chouli", a derogatory name for a patchouli wearing hippie. Stay tuned--With our friends and family test group, it has been quite de rigueur.  

And finally, we continue to wait patiently as we age bottles of  Patchouli, Vetiver, Sandalwood, and Frankincense essential oils in house. Who knows in which form they will reach you? It will probably feel like a dream. 

Texts Referenced:

DeBaggio, Thomas, and  Tucker, Arthur O. The Encyclopedia of Herbs: A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance., 2nd Ed., Timber Press, 2009.

Fairchild, Cissie “The Production and Marketing of Populuxe Goods in Eighteenth-Century Paris", Consumption and The World of Goods. Eds. Brewer John and Porter, Roy, Routledge, 1993.

Hooker, W.J.,  Hooker's J. Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany. Reeve, Benham and Reeve, Strand, 1849.

Murugan, R and Livingstone, C., "Origin of the Name 'patchouli' and its History". Current Science, Vol. 99, 10 November, 2010. 

Rhind, Jennifer Peace, Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. Singing Dragon, 2013.

Tisserand, Robert The Art of Aromatherapy. 16th ed., Daniel,1994.

Tisserand, Robert &  Young, Rodney Essential Oil Safety. 2nd ed., Churchill Livingstone, 2015.







1 comment

  • Wonderful article, thank you for posting this!

    suchitra choudhury

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