Tom Hewitt is Nursery Guild Coordinator at Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach. He can be reached at

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Perfect Scents
by Tom Hewitt       #Crafts   #Fragrant   #Pruning

Most any small flowers from your garden make colorful filler for potpourri.


One of my favorite duties in the nursery at Mounts Botanical Garden is pruning the herbs. Every week I make my rounds, pinching things back and trimming as needed. Needless to say, I end up with a lot of material. By the end of the day, visitors have snatched up most, but what’s left gets stuffed in a bag, and I bring it home to make potpourri.

Vetiver root makes a great fixative for potpourri.

Even in my own garden I never throw herb clippings away. I unceremoniously dump them in a crystal bowl in the living room, where they perfume the air as they dry. When the bowl is full I scrunch the leaves, and the good stuff falls to the bottom. Then I use the leftovers for mulch.

“Potpourri” means “rotten pot” in French. In the 17th century, they would layer fresh herbs and flowers with coarse salt, which acted as a preservative and drying agent. Fortunately things are a bit easier today. In fact, making your own potpourri is so easy that I’m amazed more people don’t do it.

There are more complicated methods for making potpourri. But I like to keep things simple and love how each batch smells a bit different from the one before. If the process intimidates you, you can always find recipes online. But it’s much more fun to invent your own.

Potpourri is composed of three elements: filler, fixative and fragrance. I like using bits of orange peel and dried flowers for filler. The petals of strawflowers (Xerochrysum bracteatum), Gomphrena and marigolds (Tagetes spp.) work especially well. For a fixative, I use patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) leaves or vetiver root (Vetiveria zizanioides), both of which grow well down here. Fixatives help reduce the evaporation rate, which keeps your potpourri smelling good longer.


Use your imagination and make your own special blends.


‘Louis Philippe’ rose petals retain their color
long after they dry.

The leaves of pineapple sage make a great
aromatic filler for potpourri.

Remember, lemon balm isn’t just for tea.
Use its leaves for potpourri!

Scrunching herbs after they dry makes the
“good stuff” fall to the bottom.

Thankfully, we’re past the days of tucking sachets into clothing to disguise odors, or strewing them on floors to deter pests. But potpourris still have their place. I fill small bags (available at craft stores) with potpourri and put them in dresser drawers to keep things fresh. Herbal sachets also make great housewarming gifts. I once gave them to guests at a garden party, attaching each one to an herb. Remember to buy “see-thru” bags if you want to show off their contents.

I like using the petals of ‘Louis Philippe’ (the “cracker rose”) in potpourri, because they hold their color for a long time and have a nice fragrance. Some herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and lavender, retain their aroma much longer than others. But when it comes to potpourri, anything from mints to sage can be used.

The best time to gather leaves for potpourri is in the morning, after the dew dries, but before the sun starts stressing leaves. Always gather four times what you need, as everything shrinks considerably after it dries. If you’re making potpourri for display purposes, scrunch leaves slightly or not at all after they dry. Then add larger items, like pinecones, spiraled orange peel or cinnamon sticks.

Most herbs take about a week to completely dry. I dry large batches on baking trays in air conditioning, but window screens work well in non-air conditioned areas, since they afford good ventilation. Remember to dry only a single layer at a time. Otherwise, some herbs with high moisture content may actually mold before they get a chance to dry.

A good combo to promote sleep is chamomile flowers, lavender buds and lemon balm leaves. You can even make an easy herb “pillow” by filling a wine bag with potpourri and sewing up the end. I make Christmas sachets with balsam needles and attach them to Christmas gifts. Balsam sachets are great for sock drawers.

Lavender flowers are about the only blooms that hold their fragrance when dried, but just about any small flower from your garden can be used in potpourri as filler. I use the leaves of lavender as well as the flowers, as they still offer considerable fragrance.

Some people add a few drops of scented oil to intensify the fragrance of potpourri, but I’ve never found this necessary. Oils are great for adding to older mixes, but I find crunching them up a bit is usually all that’s necessary to restore their fragrance. Depending on the herbs used, some combos remain fragrant for two years or more. Keeping them sealed until needed makes them last even longer.

*Editor's note: The author lives and works in Florida. The general information in this article can be used to a variety of effects; however, specific plants mentioned may have trouble growing in different zones.





A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardener Volume 19 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 09/19/16   RSS | Print


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