The Garden Muse — Patchouli’s fascinating history helped create paisley design

Published 12:10 pm Sunday, July 31, 2022

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Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a shrubby herbaceous perennial in the mint family. It is native to the Philippines and grows wild in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. It is one of those “love it or hate it” plants mostly due to its strong unmistakable scent.

Most associate patchouli with a generation of young people and their culture in the 60s dubbed “hippies.” Patchouli oil was brought back to America and Europe from India during this counterculture along with marijuana, incense, yoga, vegetarianism and many other Indian goods and practices now associated with them. Patchouli is not a native plant in India, it was most likely introduced to India around 1834, about the same time it was introduced to the West.

Patchouli is an essential ingredient in today’s perfume world. Even though it cannot be singly detected, it is a common base note found in a majority of perfumes today. Patchouli’s oil is strong, long lasting and an excellent fixative. Its essential oil possesses the rare properties of deepening and becoming richer and more complex over time, unlike other essential oils which naturally degrade over time. Interestingly there is no synthetic version of patchouli.

All the above information on Patchouli is fairly common knowledge. Now I will share some more of its history connected with ancient rich textiles, European fashion, mysterious identity, and Napoleon Bonaparte that many people are not aware of.

The beautiful ornate woolen Kashmiri shawl handwoven for many centuries in the Kashmir valley on the border of India and Pakistan (documented to the 11th Century A.D.) is the item that introduced Patchouli to the west. The yarn used was spun from the soft undercoat hairs of the Changthangi goat. This yarn is extremely fine textured and is known as cashmere (a variant spelling of Kashmir.) These shawls were owned and worn by royalty and the wealthy elite throughout India, the Middle East, near East and beyond. They found their way to Europe in the mid 1700s, brought home by officers of the West India Company as gifts for their wives. By the late 1700s textile factories in Scotland, England and France were creating imitations from merino wool.

In 1800 while in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte acquired an original Kashmiri shawl and gifted it to the Empress Josephine, after which authentic Kashmiri shawls exploded in popularity and were highly sought after. Prior to 1830, the real Kashmiri shawls were identified against the imposters by their smell. In Kashmir, the shawls were packed for shipping and layered with dried Patchouli leaves to repel moths. The enduring mystery scent infused the shawls and added to the mystique and opulent glamor. The fragrance of the shawls became as popular as the shawls themselves, but its source was unknown.

By 1826, French perfumers figured out the source of the shawls mysterious scent to be the crumbled dried packing material used in shipping. It did not take long for plants to be located, imported, and grown in greenhouses domestically. The leaves were steamed-distilled for the oil, which was then used to perfume shawls, handkerchiefs and used in perfumes in England.

The shawls and the scent of patchouli were essential in society’s fashion world from 1800 to early 1870s. Both fell out of favor due to changing style of women’s dress and patchouli’s association with licentiousness and marital infidelity. Patchouli’s strong fixative properties were its downfall and its persistent odor would often betray the guilty parties.

Kashmiri shawls also are accredited with the decorative design motif referred to as “paisley.” The ancient Indian design at least 2,000 years old was commonly woven into the borders of Kashmiri shawls. The motif became known as paisley because the Scottish town of “Paisley” was such a major center for European production of domestically made shawls. These reproductions later became known as “paisley shawls” regardless of where they were made. The motif itself was also eventually referred to as paisley.

The paisley pattern endured quietly over the years in the fashion world and in decorative art circles and eventually exploded in popularity once again in the 1960s, along with the scent of Patchouli oil.

I have never been a major fan of patchouli’s scent; however, I have become enamored with its rich history, and I must admit that the scent of a rubbed patchouli leaf between the fingers is much more pleasing to the olfactory senses than the distilled essential oil.

Dawn Conrad is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Herbal enthusiast, Writer and Fiber Artist. She can be contacted at