Patchouli (Pogostemon spp.) is a quick-growing herb in the mint family revered for its high oil content and fragrant aroma. Not every Pogostemon species is classified as a patchouli herb. Species such as Pogostemon stellatus are popular aquarium plants. True patchouli herbs have bushy, green foliage, high oil content and the distinctive, musky patchouli scent. Patchouli is cultivated as a commercial crop in Asia and parts of South America, and home gardeners around the world grow the herb for aromatic, home remedy or decorative uses.
Pogostemon cablin is the most common type of agricultural patchouli. It is cultivated in Brazil, China, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Paraguay and the Philippines, where it originated. The P. cablin species typically does not flower but produces extremely high levels of essential oil, ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 percent. Placing the plants in full sun produces the highest amounts of essential oils, but they also grow well in partial shade. P. cablin performs well in the United States but does not tolerate frost.
Pogostemon heyneanus is a type of patchouli herb found growing wild in Indonesia’s Java forest. P. heyneanus leaves are more fragile and less rounded than P. cablin leaves. Because P. heyneanus is a forest variety accustomed to growing beneath the tree canopy, it prefers partial sun. Although it is not typically cultivated for commercial use due to low oil concentration, its shade tolerance renders P. heyneanus useful for rain forest cultivation. P. heyneanus is often grown in gardens for home remedy and perfume use, and the species is available in the United States.
Pogostemon hortensis does not have a high enough oil content to render it appropriate for commercial essential oil production, and it is generally not available by name in the United States. P. hortensis resembles P. cablin with shiny, rounded leaves and an absence of flowering. West Java, Indonesia, is the main area of production for P. hortensis, where locals add it to laundry water and use it as an insect repellent.
Pogostemon benghalensis--also known as Pogostemon parviflorus-- yields low-quality patchouli oil but is sometimes cultivated in Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand as a source of pollen for honeybees. P. benghalensis leaves are used medicinally to stop bleeding and clean wounds and as a stimulant. They are also edible, and scientists are researching the use of P. benghalensis as a famine crop because it grows so quickly.