The earthy musk scent of patchouli (Pogostemon patchouli or P. cablin) is unmistakable. Patchouli is a mint family (Lamiaceae) herb indigenous to Indonesia and the Philippines and cultivated around the world. Patchouli has become popular as an ornamental and aromatic herb plant in home gardens and landscapes in the United States.
First described in 1845 by botanists, patchouli is revered for its distinct fragrance. During the Victorian era, patchouli leaves protected cashmere shawls from moths in shipping, and the luxurious Indian cashmere always reached shops in England smelling of patchouli. During the 1960s, the patchouli scent became synonymous with the hippie movement.
Patchouli has dark green foliage with rounded leaves. Vertical growth can reach 40 inches. Patchouli plants bush and may spread as wide as they are tall. Small whitish blooms appear during the late fall and early winter.
Patchouli grows indoors and outdoors and prefers high humidity. The herb enjoys partial shade but grows in full sun with adequate water. Patchouli grows as a perennial in tropical climates and tolerates neither frost nor droughts. Like other mint family herbs, patchouli wilts if its soil becomes dry to the touch but revives quickly if watered in time. Mulching helps to retain moisture. Patchouli prefers fertile, well-drained soil with a pH range of 6 to 7.5. In cooler climates, patchouli is best grown in containers and taken indoors for placement near a sunny window once the weather cools.
Collect seeds after the herb has bloomed. Patchouli seeds are fragile and produce delicate seedlings. When growing patchouli from seeds, starting seeds indoors under fluorescent lights is better than planting them directly in the soil. Seedlings are ready for transplanting outdoors once they have several leaves and after the danger of frost has passed. Take cuttings by removing 3 to 5 inches of new growth in the spring or summer before the patchouli plant blooms. Use a rooting compound if preferred and place cuttings in water or a growing medium such as potting soil. Large, well-established clumps of patchouli respond well to dividing. To divide patchouli, uproot the entire plant with a shovel and separate it into several smaller sections. Space divided sections 24 to 36 inches apart when replanting.
Patchouli is an aromatic herb popular for its essential oil. Perfumes, soaps and potpourris often contain the patchouli scent. Traditional Chinese medicine uses patchouli for its antidepressant and antimicrobial properties. Patchouli also has insect repellent properties. Due to its wide use, patchouli is important economically to many developing countries.