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Patchouli, the Incense Herb

December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

Some herbs are universally liked but others evoke either a �love it� or �hate it� response. The fragrance herb patchouli is one of those polarizing herbs. Its distinctive aroma can soothe some while it irritates others.

Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a tender perennial from Southeast Asia. It grows one to three feet high and half as wide. This herb likes moist but not soggy conditions and a pH definitely on the acid side (around 5.3) which makes it a good companion of acid-loving azaleas and hydrangeas.

The medium green leaves of patchouli are lightly toothed and somewhat reminiscent of basil. Like basil, patchouli is not happy with freezing temperatures. It should be treated as an annual where frosts regularly occur. In fact, when daytime temperatures are below 70 degrees, patchouli stops growing and may go dormant. If your region experiences rapid weather shifts, consider growing patchouli in a container so you can bring it inside as needed.

Because it infrequently produces viable seeds, patchouli is generally propagated by cuttings. Clip a stem with at least three leaf nodes. Remove the bottom leaves and any flower buds at the tip. Insert the denuded stem in moist potting soil and cover with clear plastic. Place in a warm location for about two weeks or until you see evidence of growth. Remove the plastic covering and fertilize. Treat the young plant as you would another seedling.

If you�d like to try your hand at extracting patchouli oil, you�ll need your own version of a still. Begin by harvesting the top third of the mature plant (about 18 inches tall or more). Place the leaves in a non-reactive colander and suspend them over but not touching boiling water. Collect the steam (which will carry the patchouli oil) into a glass vessel with external cold-water cooling. The patchouli oil can be skimmed off of the resulting water. In scented mixes patchouli oil combines well with sandalwood, cedarwood, lavender, rose, bergamot, and clary sage oils.