Patchouli, a monograph by Katryna Bell

Pogostemon cablin Benth., also known as Patchouli, is one of many herbaceous plants being cultivated here at Punta Mona. In the right climate, and with an optimal amount of shade, Patchouli grow between two to three feet high, with a square stem. Its furry leaves grow opposite to one another at two to three inches in width and length, with a spicy, earthen smell carried through its surfacing volatile oils when touched.


There has been a lot of confusion and debate as to where Patchouli is native, but in most recent studies the consensus seems to be that Patchouli originated in the Philippines. It is now cultivated in many tropical regions, mostly the Indonesian Islands. Patchouli leaves are most commonly used to extract its essential oils, but also can be used as a seasoning, a tea and hydrosol.


Before coming to Punta Mona I had been very familiar with its strong, last smell that came through the essential oil being sold in just about every health store, herb store and apothecary I had visited. But I had not yet understood its uses outside of its strong, hindering scent. After having the Patchouli leaves steeped in a tea one evening, which I found to be very relaxing, sending me into quite a heavy sleep, I decided to propagate the herbaceous plant as a means of getting to know it more. While doing so I became very curious as to where it came from, and why its essential oil has become so increasingly popular in the United States.


I found the Patchouli has quite an interesting history, as well as a stronger presence in our lives than we may realize. Many, like myself, may recognize Patchouli for its popularity, as an incense and essential oil, established in the 60’s through the hippie movement. Though this shrubby herbaceous plant continues to be used in that particularly vast community, it’s use dates back to as early as the 11th century in China.


It is unsure how Patchouli was introduced to China; however, it has been used in Chinese Medicine for 1,000’s of years. The Chinese are the first known to cultivate, or attempt to cultivate, Patchouli, with their success rate being small enough that it is still imported into China to this day. In TCM Patchouli has been used as a decoction with other plants for treating cold like symptoms, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, fevers and to stimulate appetite.


Surprisingly, Patchouli goes far beyond its medicinal uses, which are also said to be antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, lightly sedative, with an all-encompassing scent that serves as an aphrodisiac. Patchouli is one of the most valuable essential oils used in the perfume industry for its long lasting, strong properties. Patchouli oil, which only improves with time, is believed to be the most powerful of essential oils found in plants, as it blends well with other oils while giving them strength, increasing their shelf life, bestowing their scent and helping to prevent the evaporation of the other oils in perfume formulas. Being that Patchouli is also known to regulate cellular properties, it also serves well in soaps and lotions, soothing dry skin, irritation and inflammation.


However, TCM, perfume and cosmetics are not where Patchouli found its vast popularity, and it wasn’t the flower children of the 60’s either. The history of Patchouli is a tale of mystery, desire and conquest, that led to what is now one of the most imported plants on the planet. As said before, early cultivation of Patchouli began sometime around the 11th century in China, and it is recorded to have been introduced into India in 1834. Though there isn’t much information on how Patchouli made its way into India.


In India, Patchouli was mostly used as an insect repellent, particularly in the silk trade to protect cloths and garments from moths. Because Patchouli’s ability to ward off the moths, keeping them from mating or laying their eggs on garments and cloths, it was often used in packaging during exportation to Europe. With the Patchouli’s scent being so strong and long lasting, the garments and cloths often held the smell from the moment they were packaged to beyond the time they were purchased by the consumer, leaving Europeans blissfully curious as to what this earthen, mint like smell was. Naturally, the question of where the Patchouli scent was originating became quite a treasure hunt for the European’s.


It was the year of 1844 when the first ever box of dried Patchouli leaves arrived in London, finally answering the ever so popular questioning of that sweet, musky smell people had come to know so well. Once the discovery of the Patchouli leaf was known to the masses, as well as it’s the importance of its oils and fragrance, the search for origin and cultivation began. This led the Europeans to an area in British Malaya, where Patchouli was being cultivated and imported into China. Not much longer, large scale cultivation began in the Straight Settlements, under British regulation, subsequently slowing making its way into Indonesian islands, where Patchouli began to be, and still is, largely cultivated and exported to China, India and European countries.


Patchouli, already so greatly appreciated, becomes so much more when you uncover the fantasy and lore around its origin, cultivation and abilities. It is the plant that mysteriously keeps on giving, with prolific growth abilities, and a scent that one could never forget.