Beyond the Valley of the Hippies
By Mary Lenoir Bond
“Be Here Now!”
~ Ram Dass
Patchouli (sometimes also spelled “patchouly”) may be the most polarizing scent in perfumery. Its distinctive fragrance is unmistakable and totally unique, but people generally either love it or hate it.
Perhaps the reason for this has to do with patchouli’s famous association to 1960s hippies, who sometimes opted to wear this plant essence instead of showering or wearing traditional deodorant. Its earthy scent appealed to the natural ideals of those individuals looking to be free from the shackles of a phony, manufactured, goody-goody, 1950s TV dinner, cookie-cutter lifestyle.
However, this magnificently rich and powerful fragrance deserves to be honored for more than just a rebellious pursuit or odor cover-up. Standing alone, it has a strong herbal quality, mixed with a sort of wet rocks, bark, and garden soil scent. Sound too odd for a perfume? Well, it certainly is bold, and to quote an old 1950s Max Factor ad, “A bold fragrance? Perhaps, but why not let your perfume say things you would not dare to?” Although that ad was not about patchouli, it’s a perfectly symbolic statement because a lady wearing patchouli will certainly command attention and definitely leave an unforgettable olfactory mark.
So, just what the heck is patchouli anyway? Is it part of the woodsy family like cypress, cedar, and sandalwood…or is it a flower? While it does bloom tiny pinkish-white flowers, it’s actually an herbal plant related to mint. It grows mainly in Asian countries and prefers hot, tropical weather. The flowers themselves do cast their own intoxicating fragrance, but it’s the leaves that are distilled for the essential oil. Often, the leaves are even fermented first, adding to its rich, almost balsamic quality.
Just like orange oil, it’s an aphrodisiac and also beneficial for nourishing your skin. It has aromatherapy qualities of relaxation and it’s reported to soothe depression as well as assist in meditation. Similar to lavender and lemongrass, patchouli can also be an effective insect repellant. In fact, it was once used to keep moths from ruining silks exported from China. The mysterious and sensual scent was so compelling, it eventually found its way to Europe and was once considered an elegantly prized, luxurious scent.
Additionally, used with a carrier oil (as is necessary with all essential oils since they are too strong to apply to skin alone), patchouli is a helpful aid for healing minor skin injuries as well as beneficial for overall toning, stimulating new cell regeneration, and reducing the appearance cellulite. It’s a great unisex oil—just like lavender—and it actually mixes exceptionally well with lavender, most citrus, many herbal scents, other earthy or woody scents, and several heady or exotic florals. There are countless devoted people who love patchouli all on its own, but even if this is not you, it’s worth re-exploring the scent when it’s a base note in a blend. As a matter of fact, it might already be in some of your favorite fragrances and you may not even know it!
The hippies were famous for saying, “Give peace a chance,” but perhaps now, almost 50 years later, all we are saying is give patchouli another chance.