Deep, earthy, sweet, woodsy, calming, grounding, mysterious, sensual and a key ingredient in aromatherapy and perfumery: let’s talk about patchouli!
What is patchouli?
Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a flowering plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae). The herb grows upward with stems of around 1 meter, green velvety leaves and white-to-purple flowers. It grows well in a warm, humid climate with partial shade and is cultivated in tropical parts of South and Southeast Asia - such as Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Patchouli is thought to be native to the Philippines.
How do we get patchouli oil?
Patchouli oil is an essential oil, a complex structure of (aromatic) plant molecules that are volatile: they evaporate quickly. Essential oils are created by plants for various purposes, such as defending, communicating or attracting.
To get patchouli essential oil, the leaves and stems from the tops of the patchouli plants are harvested and dried in the shade so that they’ll slightly ferment (the cell walls will break) before steam distillation. The result is a highly concentrated plant material, as the essential oil only accounts for roughly 3% of the patchouli leaves. Extracted patchouli oil is a red-brown liquid with a thick, sticky consistency.
The characteristic scent of patchouli
Deep, earthy, sweet, woodsy, musky, a little musty with a hint of mint: the wonderful odor of patchouli is definitely characteristic. It reminds some people of the hippie movement of the 70s, some of damp soil in the rainforest, some of mystery and sensuality, and for some it’s everything together. Add its long-lasting quality and one can imagine how it became a key ingredient in perfumery and aromatherapy. Contrary to most essential oils, but like a fine wine, the aroma of patchouli oil improves with time, getting smoother and richer.
Read more about Patchouli’s scent in our article What does patchouli smell like?
The uses and benefits of patchouli oil
Relaxation and stress relief
In aromatherapy, patchouli oil is used to help calm nerves and relieve stress and anxiety. Diffuse just a few drops in the air to enjoy its relaxing properties. A high dose can actually be stimulating due to its intense aroma.
A fixative and base note in perfumery
Patchouli works as a perfume fixative: it extends the longevity of other notes by slowing their evaporation. It also adds an earthy, rich aroma to the perfume composition. You find patchouli as an ingredient in many popular perfumes, such as Chanel No. 5, Miss Dior and Lancôme La Vie est Belle.
Patchouli oil is considered a grounding oil that brings spiritual awareness to the body and a balanced connection between body, mind and spirit.
The history of patchouli
Patchouli is thought to be native to the Philippines, and has spread to tropical parts of South and Southeast Asia - such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India. The name Patchouli is derived from the Tamil words patchai meaning ‘green’ and ellai meaning ‘leaf’.
In traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, Patchouli leaves were used to treat different ailments. For example against nausea, for skin conditions (due to its antimicrobial properties) and as an aphrodisiac.
The story goes that this aromatic herb became known in Europe in the 19th century through Indian shawls, which had patchouli leaves added to them to protect the valuable fabric from moths and other insects. This kickstarted the interest in patchouli outside of Asia as well, and it became a key ingredient in perfumery.
Being associated with nature and spirituality, pure patchouli became a popular scent to wear in the 1960s and 1970s, especially among the hippie movement. This is why patchouli is often referred to as the scent of flower power time!
The chemical composition of patchouli oil
As mentioned above, patchouli oil is an essential oil and consists of a complex mixture of plant molecules. They are volatile, which means they evaporate easily into the air (which is what we smell!). It’s not actually an ‘oil’, but it’s a substance that acts like oil: it doesn’t mix with water.
The chemical composition of patchouli oil will vary from region to region, and from one season to the next, depending on o.a. weather conditions. Our Indian patchouli oil contains - among others in very small quantities - the following molecules:
Patchoulol, Bulnesene, Alpha Guaiene, Beta-caryophyllene, Beta-patchoulene, Pogostol, Nor-patchoulene