Fragrant potpourri has been around for centuries, adding the lovely aromas of dried herbs, flowers and spices to all the places around your home that required a fresh scent. Potpourri, as we know and love it today, is not always how it was made. The history of potpourri is quite interesting…
The word ‘potpourri’ comes to us from the French word pot-pourri. Translated, this means ‘rotten pot’. That is probably not the beautiful definition you were hoping for! As we look to the history of potpourri, we learn how potpourri received this name and how modern-day potpourri takes all the lovely scents and traditional reasoning for potpourri but removes the rotten aspect.
In the early 17th century in France, fresh herbs and flowers were gathered during the spring and summer months and let to dry for a day or two to become limp before being layered with coarse sea salt. The mixture was left to age with the occasional stir while adding fresh elements. The mixture would begin to ferment or even mould as the summer would pass by. When fall arrived, spices would be added to the now unsightly mixture until a lovely aroma was achieved. Orris root was added to the finished potpourri to preserve the scent and the finished potpourri was placed in special pots that had perforated lids so the scent would fill the room where it was placed.
In ancient times, aromatic lavender, thyme and chamomile were used during the mummification process and the remains of flowers, bouquets and even garlands strung with flowers and herbs have been found in Egyptian tombs.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, cloth bags filled with pleasant-smelling dried flowers and herbs were placed around the home in closets, drawers, with bedding and with linens to cover the scent of infrequent launderings. Women were also known to tuck small sachets in their underclothes to give off a sweet smell while bathing was also done infrequently.
One of the most interesting finds in my history research on Potpourri took place from the Middle Ages through the early Renaissance. At this time, rushes and straw acted as insulation to provide warmth and absorb moisture as well as adding a nice, soft cushioning. As you can image, this kind of flooring locked in all sorts of debris from spills, crumbs and also attracted insects. The infrequent changing of this flooring happened only twice a year. As you can imagine, the rushes and straw began to give off a pungent smell. People would cover their floors in herbs and flowers for both their lovely smell and insect-repelling properties. Lavender, roses, marjoram, daisies, sage, mint, basil and tansy were just some of the flowers and herbs used on their floors.
Making potpourri has changed significantly over time. The steam distillation process creating pure essential oils became affordable and were available for purchase along with dried flowers and herbs at an apothecary store. This style of potpourri, which combined flowers, oils and with natural fixatives replaced the ‘rotten pot’ with a fresh, vibrantly coloured and beautiful potpourri.
The potpourri we are most familiar with in our day and age is generally a combination of any dried plant material and strong natural or synthetic perfumes and often dyes. The fragrance often does not even resemble the material in the potpourri. This mass-produced, store-bought potpourri removes the beauty of the Victorian-era craft of creating potpourri from natural elements.