This is the first of many posts to come about plants that are commonly used in perfume. I think it's important for us fragrance fanatics to have some idea of where the smells we wear come from.
Scientific Name: Pogostemon cablin
Family: Lamiaceae (Mint Family)
Origin: East Asia
The common name "Patchouli" originates from the Tamil language from India and Sri Lanka. The roots of the name are the Tamil words "patchai" (meaning "green") and "ellai" (meaning "leaf"). The plant has been used for centuries for perfume among other things.
Originally, patchouli was used in East Asia both for its scent and its health benefits such as its use in Japan and Malaysia for the treatment of poisonous snake bites and its widespread use in Asia for aromatherapy to promote mental clarity and relaxation.
In the 18th century, Patchouli was introduced to the west by Chinese silk traders transporting silk to the Middle East. The strong scent and oils of patchouli are known to have strongly-moth repellent properties and were packed with silk cloth to repel moth infestations during transit. The silk and leaves eventually found their way to Europe, where patchouli was considered to be a scent of luxury, likely because of the association with expensive Chinese silks. This trend has continued in the perfume industry to this day.
During the war in Vietnam, American soldiers would use patchouli to mask the smell of the graves of those killed in combat. At home in the US, patchouli simultaneously became very popular with the "hippies" and war protesters of the day. War demonstrators would scent themselves with patchouli to represent the fallen soldiers in Vietnam. It is also undeniable that another reason for its surge in popularity was the ability of its strong scent to cover the scent of marijuana smoke. It has experienced a somewhat negative connotation in the US as it is often associated with "hippie" culture as it was often used in the place of bathing.
Today, patchouli is one of the main ingredients of about one third of the world's luxury fragrances and is most common in chypre, woody and oriental fragrances. Fragrances containing patchouli include famous fragrances such as Anateus and Chance by CHANEL, Habit Rouge and Jicky by Guerlain, Eau d'Orange Verte by Hermés, and PRADA Woman. In some, it is the featured ingredient, such as Patchouli Patch from L'Artisan Parfumeur of Paris and Patchouli Pure from the Fresh Index line of fragrances. The oils can often be bought from most essential oil retailers and blend well with sandalwood, lime, and ylang ylang. In most recent years patchouli has fallen slightly out of vogue in Europe and the US, but is still very common in Asia and Latin America.
It is also used commonly in East Asian incense and for the scenting of household products such as paper towels, detergents, and air fresheners. The essential oils derived from the plant are used by some in herbal remedies and the scent is claimed to promote relaxation as it is said to promote mental balance and has a positive effect on emotional sensitivity. The oils are said to be effective in treating acne and skin inflammations. They are also said to have antifungal and insecticidal properties.
Today, patchouli is grown mainly in the East and West Indies commercially. Most distillations are done in China, Indonesia, and India. The oils are easily obtained from the dried leaves via steam distillation. The major chemical component of the oils is patchoulol, which like many terpenes is a complex organic molecule thought to be responsible for giving patchouli its characteristic scent (and flavor if Patchouli were edible).