Best known for its richly scented essential oil, patchouli is native to the tropical regions of India and Malaysia. The 2- to 3-foot-tall plant has soft, fragrant leaves and small, pale pink or white flowers that appear in fall to early winter. The name patchouli comes from the Tamil pachchai and ilai, meaning “green leaf.”
Most of the world’s patchouli oil now comes from Indonesia, where the plant is often grown in rotation with other crops or as an understory plant. After the leaves are harvested, they are partially dried, stacked, and fermented, then sent to steam distilleries for extraction of the essential oil. The oil is highly valued as a perfume ingredient, as well as for healing.
Common Names: Patchouli
Description: Perennial, 2 to 3 feet tall, with serrated leaves, hairy stems, and white or pale pink flowers; highly fragrant leaves
Hardiness: Tender perennial
Flowering: Midautumn to early winter
Parts Used: Leaves and stems
Range/Habitat: Native to tropical regions of India and Malaysia
Patchouli oil has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. The oil is used externally — mixed with carrier oils, creams, or gels — to treat conditions such as dry, cracked, or oily skin and scalp; athlete’s foot; acne; inflamed skin; and eczema. Alone or mixed with other oils, patchouli oil is also a good insect repellent. In aromatherapy, the oil is used to treat exhaustion, depression, and stress, and to enhance libido. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the whole plant to treat headache, stomach gas, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Prized for making perfume, the fragrant oil of patchouli has a warm, spicy scent that improves with age. It is used to scent massage and bath oils, soaps, and cosmetic products. The leaves and oil can be added to potpourri or used in drawers and closets to scent linens and clothing and to repel moths.
How to grow it
A tropical understory plant, patchouli thrives in moist, warm, shady conditions and languishes in temperatures lower than 50°F. In cooler climates, it can be grown as an annual or as a potted indoor plant. Indoors or outdoors, provide bright, indirect light and rich, moist soil. Never allow the soil to dry out completely; mist frequently to increase humidity.
Pinch back stem tips to keep the plant bushy. In late summer, harvest up to one-third of the plant by cutting back the stems along with their leaves and any flowers. Dry them in a warm, dark location for 7 to 10 days. To promote flowering in winter, keep the plant in total darkness after sunset, starting in fall. Patchouli is easy to propagate by cuttings.