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Patchouli Essential Oil: An Aroma with History

by Amy Galper

Photo courtesy of Valérie75 / WikiCommons

It was the counter-culture revolution of the 60s in the U.S. and Europe that put a worldwide spotlight on Patchouli Essential Oil, and ever since, its aroma continues to be commonly associated with the anti-establishment. It’s amazing how aromatic memory and olfactory associations have lingered in our social consciousness for so many years, affecting our perceptions of the plant and its beautiful essential oil.

So, let’s give patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) a closer look—and dig behind the common mythologies and associations.

Patchouli is an herby green bush that grows to about three feet and is related to the mint family. If you look closely at the shape and arrangement of the leaves on the stems, and the light purple-fuzzed flowers, you can see a slight resemblance.

Like mint, the essential oil is found on the leaves, and if you were to touch and rub them between your fingers, you could easily detect and recognize its beautifully herbaceous scent.

The patchouli plant is native to tropical areas of southeast Asia, but now the cultivated plant grows in a variety of locales. Its name originated from the early Tamil people of South India, who are said to have connected to its deep, rich aromatic palette. Centuries later, patchouli arrived in the Middle East along the silk trading routes, and supposedly it was Napoleon who introduced the exotic and intoxicating scent to Europe.

As exquisite textiles, spices and objects were making their way westward along these trade routes, the fragrant patchouli leaves were packed inside the trunks of silks, carpets and other treasures to protect against moths and other insects. And when European merchants would open these trunks and prepare their products for sale, the strong earthy aroma of patchouli would embrace them. Patchouli soon became inextricably linked to the exotic objects of the Far East; it was associated with all that was different from Western culture. In fact, if a silk or a carpet didn’t smell like patchouli, merchants along the trade routes doubted its authenticity.

Understanding that bit of history, it makes sense why the young people of the 60s and 70s counter-culture revolution were attracted to the aroma: It represented their values and aesthetic.

Unlike other aromatic leafy plants like mint or eucalyptus, which are steam-distilled after being freshly picked, the leaves of the patchouli plant must be carefully dried before essential oil can be extracted. The traditional drying process is time-consuming and arduous. Once bamboo mats are in direct sunlight, the top three to five maturest leaves are picked and then carefully placed, making sure they are not touching one another. The leaves are checked often, turned over and moved slightly to make sure that they don’t mold, ferment or dry too quickly and crumble. Once they are ready, which takes an expert eye to determine the proper level of dryness, they are placed in the still.

The essential oil, when first extracted, has a slightly viscous, orange hue, and one can detect a lighter fruity and minty background that floats above its deeper, woodsier bouquet. Patchouli Essential Oil is unique in that it gets better with age—like a fine wine. And as it ages, the color and viscosity deepens, and its earthier, darker, richer notes emerge. It’s this aspect of the essential oil which has made it such an important component of perfumes.

The healing properties of Patchouli Essential Oil are numerous, and range in supporting against infections to improving hair’s luster and arousing our sensuality.

Here are a few ways to use Patchouli Essential Oil at home:

Skin and Hair Care Great for balancing out the skin’s own sebum production, it’s both cleansing and fortifying. For our scalp, it’s particularly effective against dandruff and scalp irritations that may hinder hair growth and luster. Try adding a few drops of Patchouli Essential Oil to a hair mask or your conditioner, making sure to massage a bit into your scalp first.

Our Immunity Great for fighting infections: excellent antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. A good oil to add to a chest rub when you have a cold, or administer topically if you have a rash or wound that you want to prevent from getting infected. Patchouli is particularly effective in combatting nail fungus.

Emotional/Spiritual and Psychological Patchouli Essential Oil is deeply relaxing and sedating, and can greatly improve a mediation practice by soothing the mind from excess thoughts and worry. Its deep and musky scent can be arousing, allowing a sense of confidence and freedom. Try adding a few drops to a body massage oil or diffuser.

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