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Making Fragrant Herbal & Floral Potpourri

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When was the last time you had a potpourri mixture in your house?  Not just any potpourri mixture - one that made you stop and savor the very air as you came in from a long day.  One that drew comments from virtually every visitor to your home.  One that lifted your spirits and made your house feel inviting and warm.  These are the sensations you can get from having some REAL potpourri around the house - and the only way to get it is to jump head first into the wonderful world of herbal and floral scents!

As you might guess, great potpourri starts with great ingredients.  Ideally, you want a mixture of a lot of different scents and textures, which can include flowers, seeds, foliage, berries, citrus, bark, wood, roots, spices, pine cones, nuts, essential oils, or anything else botanical that you think will enhance the look or fragrance.  Basically anything in your garden is fair game, as long as you find the look and scent pleasing.

Correctly drying your potpourri ingredients is the most important factor in whether you have a truly magnificent mixture or a moldy mess, so take heed here.  If you have a big enough garden and have plenty of herbs and flowers, it is perfectly acceptable to bunch them and hang upside down in a cool, dry place.  In fact, this is really the ideal.  However, most of us don't have that kind of volume in our gardens, and as such, screen drying is our best bet.  

Get some screen from an old window or purchase a roll for a couple of bucks from the neighborhood home center.  Anchor it any way you can find that will keep the screen taut and off the ground.  I use an old square board as a base, with four bricks on each side, then the screen, and four more bricks on top of the original four to hold the screen in place.  In an emergency, I can pick the whole thing up and carry it indoors, though it is fairly heavy.  Use your imagination!  I use a shady spot on the south side of the house for drying.  Whatever you use, it doesn't have to be fancy, but it does have to be mobile in case of wind or rain.  Obviously, you can dry the ingredients indoors too, but I find that they dry faster outside.  You can also simply dry on newspaper, but this is a far inferior way compared to screen drying, and the tiny bit of work it will take to make a drying screen will pay off handsomely.  Either way, once arranged on the screen, disturb the ingredients often to make sure that they are completely dry.  Once this is accomplished, transfer to a glass or ceramic container with a lid that fits tightly to store until you have enough dried materials to make the potpourri.  Avoid metal or plastic containers if at all possible, as you want the scent to be pure and unadulterated.

Gathering materials for potpourri should be an ongoing project.  Whatever the season, always be on the lookout for interesting ingredients that might enhance the look or scent of the potpourri. See the link below for help in choosing materials for the type of potpourri you are striving to make.  

Choosing Flowers:  When choosing flowers for your mixture, get out early, just after the morning dew has evaporated, and choose new flowers that have just opened to insure that you get them when their essential oils are at their peak.  Pull the petals off, discarding any imperfect individuals, and place on your screens as per the instructions above.  Even if the flower is not known for its scent, it may be a nice addition to the look of the finished potpourri, so don't discount anything abjectly, unless it has a noticeably disagreeable smell. 

Choosing Foliage: As with flowers, foliage is best gathered in the morning.  Cut whole stems and either hang in bunches or strip the leaves and dry on your screen.  Obviously, choose leaves that are unblemished and discard any less than perfect individuals.

Choosing seeds:  It is tough to tell when seeds from the garden are dry, so if you want to use seeds in your potpourri, crush them first, and dry on a thin piece of paper on your screens or on newspaper.  Also, look for seed in the fall after the growing season is over for ready-made dried seed that can be crushed and added to  your potpourri as is. 

Choosing Bark: Pine bark and pine cones come to mind as truly aromatic sources of scent for any potpourri, but there are many other barks that can be used, including spruce, Douglas fir, cedar, or any other aromatic wood - think of Christmas trees!  Then go out and find an aroma that suits your purposes.

Choosing Citrus:  Citrus is almost a given in any successful potpourri.  Choose your scent - orange, lemon, lime, etc.  To prepare for potpourri, peel the fruit as closely as possible in strips.  Take a spoon and scrape the pulp from the skin, then break the cleaned peel into small pieces and dry on your screen until brittle.

Choosing Berries:  Berries such as cranberries, holly berries, berries from plants such as Nandina add to the bulk of the mixture and look wonderful, especially in holiday potpourris.  Berries take longer to dry, and a newspaper laid out in a dark, dry corner will suffice for them.  Place in a single layer and turn often.

Choosing Other Ingredients:  Pine cones or cones from other conifer-type plants add bulk and look good in potpourris, so keep an eye out for these.  Various types of nuts can also become valuable ingredients to add bulk and interest to the mixture.

Once you have dried enough materials and your mixture is ready to go, you will need a fixative for your potpourri, which absorbs the aromatic oils and releases them slowly.  The fixative is the key to successful potpourri.  Good fixatives include Orris root and Musk, and these can be found at crafts stores and some health food stores.  Add 1-2 tablespoons of fixative per quart of dried materials.  Mix with a wooden spoon or by hand.  Once done, store the entire mixture in a tightly covered jar or ceramic pot for six weeks to blend the fragrances before placing the potpourri out to scent your home.  

To enhance or rejuvenate the scent of finished potpourri, essential oils can be added at any time.  Don't overdo - a drop or two will yield noticeable results, but more may be overpowering.  Making your own essential oils is a fun and inexpensive way to enhance your Potpourri, and detailed instructions are provided here at How to Make Herbal Essential Oils and Ointments.



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