Patchouli - Botany And History

Patchouli is a very popular plant, the essential oil of which is employed for various purposes, chiefly medicinal and cosmetic. The essential oil of patchouli, which is its primary (if not its sole) product is derived from the leaves (and in some cases, even the inflorescence of the plant), it being shrub-like in appearance and measuring no more than some three feet in length at the most, in both wild and cultivated species. Patchouli is discernable for its woody appearance, replete with a tough, fleshy stem flaunting dark-green, matte leaves and for its pale pink-white flowers dappled with green which grow in cattail like axils atop the main branches of the plant. The leaves and inflorescence of patchouli are slightly aromatic (its distinctive scent only appearing after it has been processed).

The plant is known for its hardiness, able to grow in soils of relatively poor conditions, given ample (but not direct) sunlight and watering. Patchouli seems to thrive best in hot, muggy weather, although it is not at all averse to slightly colder climes. Patchouli, being of the mint family, is able to tolerate cold spells, although it is neither drought nor frost resistant, making any true and fruitful cultivation of it outside of the Asiatic sphere somewhat difficult. Originally a native to the tropical regions of Asia, it is now widely cultivated throughout much of the world as a garden plant, although the best sourced patchouli still comes from the Asiatic strains, most of which can be found thriving in China, the Philippines, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos. Patchouli has long been associated with the mystique and splendour of the Far East, this chiefly due to the fact that the cultivated plants have been a trade good and commodity since prior to its eventual introduction to the Western world sometime in the early part of the 18th to the latter parts of the 19th centuries. [1]

The popularity of patchouli is owed chiefly through the extensive trade of its distilled essential oil, and, prior to that, its dried leaves which have been employed as a perfume, incense, and medicine since ancient times. Among the most prolific traders of patchouli is the Middle East, which has employed its highly aromatic leaf for sundry purposes since the founding of the Spice Road. From an historical vantage-point, the trade in patchouli may have first sprung from India's contact with the Middle Eastern carawanserai, although China is just as much a viable point of origin for the spread of its usage and trade, perhaps having done extensive trading with India in the light of the spread of Buddhism long before the Middle East even so much as got a whiff of patchouli.

Later on, the heady, often overpowering aroma of patchouli came to the attention of the West, when Middle Eastern traders liberally scented their fabrics with the stuff for the sake of preservation, and soon came to be associated with the luxuries and allure of Arabia, albeit erroneously. Archaeological evidence suggests that patchouli was not unknown to earlier civilisations that sprung from the River Tigris and the Nile, and that Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians have employed patchouli in whole leaf form for both medicine and incense long before the art and science of steam distillation properly isolated its potent oil.

One cannot know for certain when the first steam-distilled essence of patchouli first became available to the general populace, although one can theorise that the given date of circa 1800s is far too late a time, with the possibility of its extractions through steam distillation via sundry tools dating perhaps even earlier, to before the Christian Era. If the latter were true, this would support the undoubtedly (once) pricey nature of the oil, and its subsequent popularity and indispensability as a trade-good. Theoretically, one of the earliest 'extracts' of patchouli were perhaps cold macerations of its dried leaves in a base oil, or a slow maceration of leaves in heated oil which was then strained and stored. This does not discount the strong possibility of steam distillation using anything other than glass tools, but the height of patchouli oil extraction perhaps arose sometime during the early to mid-1700s, when the world of perfumery in the West, especially in France and the Lowlands reached its zenith, and where glass tools that allowed for a finer extraction sans any adulteration, contamination, or leeching that was often the case when employing metal-based distillation tools. The use of patchouli became somewhat limited to European and Asiatic sensibilities, although by the late 1970s to mid-1980s, a boom in the interest in on the scent came about in the Americas, chiefly due to the Hippie sub-cultural movement of the time, and partly due to an influx of interest in Hinduism and Hindu mysticism which was combined with Hippy philosophy. This boom was really no more than just a relapse of a similar boom which occurred in England during the height of the Victorian Era, partly due to same reasons (interest in Middle Eastern / Indian cultures), although the latter was brought about chiefly due to the British conquest of India and the establishment of the British Raj, as well as strong trade with the Middle East with history that dates as far back as the Crusades.

Today, the farming, harvesting, and distillation of patchouli essential oil has become a booming industry, with demand for the oil coming in from both the cosmetic and alternative medical sectors. The essential oil of patchouli is unique in that while the potency of other essential oils degrade with time, primarily due to oxidation and other factors (i. e. heat, exposure to open air), if left in a dark place and contained in an air-tight container, patchouli oil becomes more pungent, and, subsequently more potent with age, making patchouli an excellent oil to store for long periods. There is even a debate on the most ideal way of extracting the essential oil, with some advocating the use of fresh leaves extracted as soon as it is harvested, while others opt for drying the leaves in the sun prior to extraction. Either of these two processes are said to increase the potency of patchouli's aroma, although they are not in any respect an indicator of the oil's eventual quality and medicinal potency (or lack thereof). Patchouli essential oil is characterised by a heady, warm, slightly vegetal, strongly woodsy aroma that borders on the spicy side, although less fragrant and more cloying varieties (generally made from adulterated or low-grade distillates) are also known. [2]

Patchouli - Herbal Uses

Nowadays, the essential oil of patchouli is primarily employed in the world of perfumery - a practice which has a long history, dating back to the earliest periods, possibly even to the time of the Ancient Egyptians. The earliest uses of patchouli long before the advent of steam distillation perhaps involved run-of-the-mill maceration or decoction in order to extract its essences. While these methods yielded a product which is largely inferior to the essential oils that are found today, for the purposes of medicine (which was of paramount importance during ancient times) it sufficed well enough to have been adopted as de rigueur until the eventual discover and employment of steam distillation.

Employed medicinally, patchouli has long been used as an aperitif to whet the appetite, and, if inhaled or drunk (in very diluted solutions, or mild decoctions of the leaf), it acts as a digestive and is believed to help remedy indigestion, bloating, nausea dyspepsia, and colic, the latter being true if the oil is diluted and applied topically to the abdominal area. [3] When mixed with a carrier oil and applied topically, it is a moderately effective analgesic, but proves to be excellent for the treatment of various bronchial disorders, and is even a staple (in Traditional Chinese Medicine) of headache remedy unctions. [4] There is a strong possibility that the essential oil of patchouli may be employed as a topical analgesic when mixed with other herbs, spices, or essential oils with far more potent analgesic properties.

Patchouli essential oil is also very commonplace in the world of cosmetics, where it is oftentimes integrated into everything from soaps to lotions, shampoos, facial creams and nearly every other possible imaginable cosmetic. When integrated into products such as shampoos, patchouli is said to remedy various fungal skin infections - dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, and even lice and tick infestations being just among the few. [5] It is a staple in the hair-care industry due to its rumoured capacity to help allay the onset of male-pattern alopecia, and to correct some cases of alopecia areata. It is also believed to help prevent and even correct greying hairs. [6] A few drops of the essential oil suspended in water can be employed as an all-natural antiseptic mouthwash, and may even help to treat halitosis and prevent the onset of gingivitis in some individuals. [7] Oral hygiene products, especially those geared towards a more organically-oriented market have a range which contains patchouli oil among other extracts as an alternative to alcohol-based antiseptics.

Used chiefly as a massage oil (more often than not diluted in a carrier oil), or otherwise integrated into lotions and creams patchouli is highly valued as a potent anti-aging skin oil, with a capacity to heal wounds, lessen the visibility of minor to moderately acute scarification, and even allay or correct skin wrinkling. [8] Patchouli even features in most organically based deodorants as it possesses powerful antibacterial properties that help to prevent the production of foul odours, while effectively masking the scent of sweat with its woodsy aroma. [9]

When employed for aromatherapeutic purposes, patchouli oil is prescribed as both an anti-stressant and an aphrodisiac. It is believed that inhaling the scent of patchouli helps to alleviate the symptoms of stress and promote relaxation while effectively enervating and tonifying the body. Patchouli is also prescribed as a remedy for anxiety, lethargy, and depression, with moderate to highly effective benefits derived from its use. [10]

One of the most ancient (but nevertheless still strongly relevant) employment of the essential oil of patchouli is in its use as an all-natural pesticide and insect repellent. [11] Patchouli can be employed in this manner through a number of means, the easiest being to diffuse the essential oil with the use of a steam diffuser, or to otherwise apply a diluted mixture of it with a carrier oil topically. Another, far older method, is to take packets or medium-sized bushels of its leaves and leave it to hang upon windows, rafters, and even to store it alongside clothes in order to prevent mould, mildew, and moth infestations - a practice which dates back to the time of the Arabian spice-traders, and which persisted until well into the zenith of the Victorian Era.

Patchouli - Esoteric Uses

Patchouli has an equally interesting employment in the field of magick and sorcery, and has become something on an indispensable herb for many magickal practitioners from all walks of life. The most commonplace (if not altogether the most notorious) use of patchouli is as an incense, either in stick, cone, whole (and lately even oil) form. Its use as incense came about due to the penchant of East Asian Buddhists and Hindu ascetics for the aroma, it being earthy, rich, and grounding. Not only does it help to alleviate stress and allow one to enter into a state of calm, patchouli is also believed to help induce euphoria and a sense of being grounded - a use which to this day stands in a variety of different esoteric practices, whether Wiccan, Neo-pagan, or shamanic in form. It use (or perhaps its abuse) as an incense came about during the hippie movements of the '70s and '80s, where proponents of the ideology favoured the incense so much that they literally doused themselves in it, giving their persons, and, subsequently, patchouli a bad rep among many individuals.

Used within the context of spellwork, patchouli is employed as a talismanic herb to help ground negative energies, and whole leaves of the plant are even folded into wallets or otherwise carried around one's person in medicine pouches or juju bags to help attract love and money, as well as to ward off illness and danger. Burnt as incense, it is employed chiefly in money spells, or in de-hexing and warding; it is even invaluable (when combined with rosemary and sage) as a grounding-cum-cleansing smudge. When decocted into a potion, it is said to help enhance fertility, induce lust (making it excellent for fixing spells and love potions), and allow one to connect to the Earth's deeper wellsprings. In the practice of Voodoo and Wicca, patchouli is often substituted for the dread graveyard dirt and goopher dust (sic.), and can be employed to banish evil entities, or to otherwise hex individuals. [12]

Patchouli - Contraindications And Safety

Patchouli is generally considered safe even when employed regularly for long periods of time, although if taken internally, it must only be done in food-dosages. As a general rule of thumb, pregnant and nursing women should avoid the intake or employment of products that contain patchouli. While it is perfectly safe for use on young children, it is not advised for infants for the sake of safety. As with any essential oil, never employ patchouli undiluted and only purchase high-grade essential oils. Prior to any topical application, always perform a patch test upon one's inner elbow to ascertain whether one is allergic to the substance, and, if confirmed, discontinue or abstain from further use.

Patchouli - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: huo xiang / guan huo xiang
Japanese: patchori (onomatopoeia of the English word 'patchouli')
Korean: pa cholli (onomatopoeia of the English word 'patchouli')
Hindi: sugandhara/
Sanskrit: patchpan / putcha-pat
French: patchouli / huile de patchouli
Italian: patchouli
Spanish: patchuli
German: patschuliol
English: patchouli / patchouly / pachouli
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Pogostemon cablin


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Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt.

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