Did you ever make rose petal perfume as a child? My sister and I did; packing rose petals into jam jars, filling them with water and leaving them to rest in the sun, then testing the 'perfume' on ourselves, our parents, in fact whoever was unwary enough to join us in the garden with our jam jars!
I think those early excursions into perfumery were the start of my lifelong fascination for potpourri and antique perfumes. And by potpourri I mean the real deal, not the dried, garishly coloured leaves, pine cones and synthetic scent that can be sold as potpourri in some gift shops.
Real potpourri is made from flowers, herbs and spices, collected following specific directions: they need to be picked on a dry, warm day before 11am, after that the sun will start to evaporate the plant oils; in the case of flowers they must be harvested just before they're in full bloom; in the case of herbs, before they flower. True potpourri has many specifics to it, it's quite an art. Curing is also vitally important. Six weeks is the usual curing time, it allows the fixative, often orris root, to do its work and it gives the ingredients the time they need to release their oils and mingle together to give what, the early 20th century herbalist, Eleanour Sinclair Rohde called " the soft subdued scent of potpourri".*
Potpourri also gives you the chance for a spot of time travelling. I think smell is the sense that links one almost immediately to the past. Sitting in a herb garden breathing in the scent of thyme, southernwood and sage can, if you dream along with them, transport you to another century entirely. Potpourri does the same. And the colours of potpourri are the colours of old tapestries, faded and gentle; grey-greens, pinks, soft creams, delicate browns.
As for authentic recipes, there are plenty around, people have been recording them and publishing 'receipt books' and herbals since the 16th Century; Mary Doggett, Hannah Glasse and Sir Hugh Platt to name but a few. You can learn how to make exotic sounding concoctions, not only potpourri but also, rosebowls, sweetbags, pomanders, pastilles for burning and sweet waters. Sometimes the ingredients are a little unusual but with a bit of research you can usually find alternatives.
In this age of growing environmental consciousness, potpourris seem an obvious choice; they contain no harsh chemicals, as you may find in commercial plug-ins and air-fresheners, just natural, gentle ingredients.
Try making some yourself. You can collect the flowers over the summer and dry them on trays in the airing cupboard, or any other dry, warm place, turning the petals over occasionally, and tie herb stems together in small bunches and hang them in brown paper bags to keep away the dust. They're ready when they're dry but still have their colour, usually about a week to ten days. Then store them in jars in a cool, dry, dark place until you're ready to mix them. You'll need a fixative, orris root is a good one and can be bought from George Baldwin's **. You can create your own potpourri using flowers and herbs you have to hand, but a recipe is quite handy as proportions are also very important, some flowers and herbs are stronger than others, and you don't want one to overpower the rest. I've listed a couple of useful books on the subject below, they also give some recipes too.
Once you've made and cured your potpourri, display it in a bowl but make sure it's covered when you're not in the room. A good potpourri should be capable of lasting for fifty years, I still have one I made over thirty years ago, the scent is faint now but still there. To give them the best chance of lasting they do need protecting from direct sunlight, damp and covering when not in use to avoid the natural oils evaporating.
If you don't have access to flowers for picking, if you don't have the time to make your own, or if you'd just like to see if real potpourri is for you, then please see the Still Room at the address below for a few ready made examples.
* The Scented Garden - Elanour Sinclair Rohde. c1920
** George Baldwin & Co, Herbalists https://www.baldwins.co.uk/ Tel: 020 7703 5550
A couple of useful books on potpourri and recipes, these are currently out of print but try Ebay, second hand bookshops, or libraries.
A Book of Pot-Pourri - Gail Duff, first published Orbis Publishing, 1985
Rose Recipes From Olden Times - Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, first published by Routledge, 1939 under the title Rose Recipes.