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Patchouli: What Was Once Old Becomes New Again…and Again

By Amy Forsberg

Patchouli oil is distilled from Pogostemon cablin, an herbaceous shrubby perennial in the mint family. The scent is variously described as musky, woodsy, earthy, sensual, and camphoraceous. Those who dislike it may agree more with this quote from an 1856 Ladies Home Companion article: “It is far from agreeable, having a sort of mossy or musty odor, analogous to Lycopodium; or, as some say, it smells of ‘old coats’.”

Fun side note: Regarding patchouli’s fixative properties, one source I encountered suggested that it may have had the unfortunate effect of fixing (rather than masking) the smell of body odor when worn by unwashed hippies and thereby amplifying their body odor. So when some people say they dislike the smell of patchouli, it may actually be the blended scent of patchouli and body odor that they are remembering as so objectionable! 

Painting of shawl makers in Kashmir, 1867, by William SimpsomAlthough India is where many Americans first encountered patchouli, Pogostemon cablin is not native there, and was probably not introduced to India until about 1834, around the time it was first described in the West. Pogostemon cablin is believed to be native to the Philippines, and grows wild in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. But the name “patchouli” derives from a Tamil word meaning “green leaf” and was, since ancient times, applied to several related plants with similar strong camphoraceous scents, including Pogostemon heyneanus and other Pogostemon species, Microtoena patchouli, and Agastache rugosa, all of which were used medicinally and as insect repellents. When Pogostemon cablin was introduced to India, it was also called patchouli and used in similar ways, being the most potent of all. Pogostemon heyneanus is known as Java patchouli and is grown commercially on a much smaller scale than P. cablin.

Pogostemon cablin is a tropical and subtropical crop that prefers warm, humid weather, loamy, well-drained, fertile, and slightly acidic soil, and full sun or partial shade. Today, it is cultivated in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, Vietnam, and the Caribbean and is often grown as an understory crop with tree crops such as coconut (Cocos nucifera), rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), and oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). It is generally pest free and easy to propagate from cuttings.

th century, and believed to go back to the 3rd century AD), and have been widely known as a luxurious status symbol for just as long. They were woven from yarn spun from the soft undercoat hairs of the Changthangi goat, which have to be raised at high altitudes in order for the goats to produce such Around 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte acquired one of these shawls while in Egypt and gave it to Empress Josephine as a gift. The shawls then exploded in popularity and were highly sought after. Josephine Pogostemon cablin, while scholars now believe that it is far more likely that it was actually the milder Pogostemon heyneanus that was being used for packing. The leaves were steam distilled for their oil, which was used on shawls, scented handkerchiefs, and in perfumes. The dried leaves were used in potpourri to scent parlors and drawing rooms in England.

One last fun side note: The curvilinear motif so common on the borders of the shawls is an ancient Indian motif at least 2000 years old but became known in the West as “paisley,” because the Scottish town of Paisley was such a major center for European production of these shawls that all such shawls eventually became known as “paisley shawls,” regardless of their geographic origin. Thus, the word “paisley” eventually cameReferences

Bradford, Isabella & Holloway Scott, Susan. 2009. Wrapped in Luxury: Cashmere Shawls. Two Nerdy History Girls. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2009/12/wrapped-in-luxury-cashmere-shawls.html

Herb Companion Staff. 2002. Herb to Know: Patchouli. Mother Earth Living. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/plant-profile/HERB-BASICS-TO-KNOW-Patchouli

Murugan, Ramar & Livingstone, C.. 2010. Origin of the name ‘patchouli’ and its history. Current Science. 99. 1274-1276. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279905001_Origin_of_the_name_’patchouli’_and_its_history

Pallardy, Richard. 2018. The Mysterious Origins of Patchouli. Earth.com: Nature-Science-Life. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.earth.com/news/patchouli-origins/

Patel, Maneesha. 2017. In Pursuit of Patchouli. Balbac Beauty blog. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://balbecbeauty.com/blogs/news/in-pursuit-of-patchouli

Ramya H G, Palanimuthu V and Rachna. 2013. An introduction to patchouli (Pogostemon cablin Benth.) – A medicinal and aromatic plant: It’s importance to mankind. Agricultural Engineering International: CIGR Journal, 15(2): 243 -250. Accessed July 1, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/25578500/An_introduction_to_patchouli_Pogostemon_cablin_Benth_A_medicinal_and_aromatic_plant_Its_importance_to_mankind

Photo Credits: 1) Painting by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1805, The Empress Josephine (Public Domain); 2) Satya Patchouli incense, 1960s classic (www.hippieshop.com); 3) Patchouli leaves, Pogostemon cablin (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Painting of shawl makers in Kashmir, 1867, by William Simpsom (Wikimedia Commons); Painting by John Singer Sargent, Cashmere, 1908 (Public Domain); 5) Shawl from Kashmir, mid-19th century (Wikimedia Commons, Honolulu Museum of Art); 6) Pashmina goats (Wikimedia Commons); 7) Painting of Empress Josephine, 1808, by Antoine Jean Gros (Public Domain); 8) Image depicting women wearing shawls of early 19th-century France (Wikimedia Commons); 9) Painting of “Madame Riviere,” 1805, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (Wikimedia Commons); 10) Image depicting the paisley design on the edge of fabric (Wikimedia Commons, Aukland Museum).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Amy Forsberg follows her dual passions of gardening and sewing in Maryland. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

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