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Patchouli Essential Oil

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Some would say that patchouli is the most distinctively fragranced herb in the botanical kingdom. The first whiff of its rich, exotic scent never fails to become fixed forever in the olfactory memory.

The plant that produces this remarkable aroma is a tropical member of the lamiaceae family. Distant relatives include lavender, rosemary and many other herb plants associated with more temperate regions. Patchouli seems to have moved south and suffused itself in the mysterious aromas of a dark and steamy jungle while retaining a hint of the sunny, herbal fragrances of its northern Mediterranean cousins.

Patchouli was first described by botanists in the Philippines in 1845. Today growing interest in its fragrance has led to patchouli's widespread cultivation throughout tropical Asia.

True patchouli has hairy stems, flowers only reluctantly, and is usually propagated by cuttings. A second species, Pogostemon heyneanus, known as Java patchouli, has smooth stems and flowers. Java patchouli has an inferior aroma and may show up as an adulterant in the whole leaf form or the distilled oil. Plants available from herb nurseries labeled as Pogostemon cablin often turn out to be Pogostemon heyneanus.

Patchouli has long been used as a moth repellent in Asia. This practice may have been responsible for its introduction to Europe in the early 1800s. At that time imported goods like silk shawls and India ink arrived redolent with the smell of patchouli in European ports. In time the presence of the aroma came to be regarded as an indicator of genuine oriental goods. Around 1844 the first shipment of dried patchouli leaves reached London and savvy (or sneaky!) local manufacturers began using the plant to scent their own versions of expensive imported goods.

It wasn't long before patchouli oil's remarkable staying power made it an important fixative ingredient in the manufacture of fine perfumes and cosmetics. A fixative is a substance that combines well with the other ingredients in a blend, slowing down the evaporation of the fragrance and making it last longer when applied as a personal essence. The increased demand helped create an industry of patchouli farming and distillation in tropical Asia that persists to the present.

Patchouli is usually grown on small forest plots by individual farmers who harvest and dry the leaves, then sell them to distilleries throughout the growing region. The still operators buy many lots of dried leaves and combine them into one steam distillation, the results of which may then be combined with successive distillations until they've obtained sufficient quantities of oil.

Newly distilled patchouli oil has a fresh, green, slightly harsh aroma. As the oil ages it mellows considerably, becoming sweeter and more balsamic. Patchouli is one of very few oils that, like fine wine, improve with age. High quality patchouli oils emit a suave, fruity, wine-like top note when uncapped. Other oils that age well are sandalwood and vetiver, both of which blend quite nicely with patchouli.

Adulteration of patchouli is less common than with other essential oils. The relative ease of its cultivation and generous yield of oil (up to 3.5% under ideal conditions) substantially removes the temptation for unscrupulous suppliers to adulterate it. (In contrast a product like rose oil yields just 0.2% essential oil.) Heavy cedarwood or spicy clove-like notes may indicate that patchouli oil has been tampered with, usually as a result of a bad crop year or when demand outweighs supply.

Patchouli is most often used in aromatherapy. The dried leaves and stems are employed in traditional Chinese medicine to normalize the flow and balance of the life force known as qi (or chi).

An aromatherapy blend inspired by the traditional Chinese use can evoke a feeling of gentle clarity and inspire the harmonious flow of emotional energy. It uses oils with balancing and mildly energizing aromas.

Harmonious Energy Flow Blend
An aromatherapy blend inspired by the traditional Chinese use can evoke a feeling of gentle clarity and inspire the harmonious flow of emotional energy. It uses oils with balancing and mildly energizing aromas.

In aromatherapy patchouli is often used as a relaxant. The warmth and depth of its aroma make it comforting and relaxing. Patchouli's relaxing attributes, coupled with its rich and exotic nature, have led to its inclusion in sensual and amorous blends, particularly appropriate for products like massage oil. For these applications patchouli combines well with ylang ylang, jasmine, sandalwood, vetiver and rose. Let your senses and personal tastes guide you in creating a concentrated blend of these sensual oils. Or use patchouli alone as a sensually evocative and deeply relaxing fragrance. Patchouli's distinctive scent can always be relied upon to evoke a marked aromatherapeutic response.

Exotic Patchouli

The earthy piquant aroma of patchouli has served the perfume industry as a base note for many years. Its tenacious aroma, along with its ability to blend with many other oils and fragrance compounds, makes it indispensable for perfumers as well as aromatherapists.

The unmistakable aroma of patchouli began to waft its way into western society in the early 1800s. At that time very costly imported Indian fabrics would arrive at the ports of Europe exuding the mysterious aroma of patchouli then considered a hallmark of genuine oriental goods.

Patchouli's evokes the turbulent era of the 60s and early 70s, when it was widely used in perfume and incense. The intense response summoned by patchouli made the oil an appropriate signature scent for a time of polarization: love and hate, war and peace.

Where Does Patchouli Come From?
Patchouli oil is steam distilled from the leaves of a tropical member of the mint family known as Pogostemon cablin, which grows primarily in Indonesia and the Philippines. Before distillation takes place the leaves are partially dried, stacked and bailed. This causes a slight fermentation which weakens the microscopic oil-bearing cell walls, thus ensuring a greater yield of oil from the distillation.

A Different Kind of Patchouli
Patchouli oil is distilled outside the growing region, using imported, cured plant material, yielding a considerably different oil: pale orange, spicy-sweet and herbaceous. This seems to result from the recycled iron drums used by native distillers, which impart a dark brownish-red cast to the oil. Other differences in the oil may result from increased curing time as the bales of patchouli make their slow journey overseas to distilleries in Europe and the U.S.

Patchouli is thick, viscous, sticky and very slow to volatilize. High-quality oils possess an elusive, wine-like, floral sweet topnote. This topnote commands more of a presence as the oil ages (approximately one year from distillation.) The bodynote is incredibly rich, intensely sweet, woody, balsamic and earthy. The aroma can cling to a perfume blotter for weeks.

Patchouli's Use in Aromatherapy
Aromatherapists use patchouli for a variety of therapeutic effects. The oil is of great benefit to the skin. For this application it blends well with lavender, rosemary and tea tree oils. Patchouli is relaxing, uplifting, sensual and exotic.

Patchouli Bath Blend
This simple blend makes a relaxing, sensual and richly fragrant aroma for massage or bath.

An Indispensable Oil

In fragrance work, patchouli blends well with woody oils such as sandalwood, rosewood and cedarwood. In citrus blends it can help balance and ground the fresh, crisp topnotes. Patchouli serves as an excellent base to floral blends in combination with oils like geranium, lavender, rose, neroli and clary sage. Patchouli's balsamic note produces interesting effects when combined with other balsamic oils, especially myrrh.

Creating a Personal Essence with Patchouli
The following recipe will produce a distinctive and adaptable bodynote for a personal essence. Its rich, floral aroma can be lightened with the addition of complementary topnotes like lavender or lemon. The rose heart of the essence can be developed into a more complex floral note with the addition of neroli or jasmine. Clove and cinnamon will produce a more spicy fragrance.

Patchouli Personal Essence
This recipe will produce a distinctive and adaptable bodynote for a personal essence.

Patchouli's intriguing history, exotic origin and unique attributes make it an essential oil of many uses. The oil is an outstanding base note for all types of perfume and aromatherapy blends. Its therapeutic aroma is soothing and sets the mood for a sensual, exotic experience.


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