A History of Potpourri [Part 4 of 7]

Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase.  
Maria van Oosterwijck,1630–1693)

Potpourri in the 17th Century
This post is the fourth in a seven-part series, A History of Potpourri.  



Painting of a woman making potpourri

We arrive in France. It’s the 17th century and the crafting of potpourri, the “rotten pot,” provides a popular accessory for home decor.  Potpourri-making was a process of layering fresh flowers and herbs with coarse salt which acted as a preservative and drying agent, in covered ceramic vessels.  More flowers, herbs and salt were added to the original mixture throughout Spring and Summer as the garden became more abundant, and were layered and tossed with additional salt.  The result was a not-so-pretty somewhat sweet-scented (and sometimes moldy) mass of grey botanicals.  After the Autumn harvest additional spices and botanicals, like orange peel and cinnamon stick, were added to pretty the mixture up and add more scent, and essential oils or perfumes were added as a final touch to create a long-lasting mixture that would bring beautiful scent to the home.  This fermented blend was then placed in bowls or baskets and set around the abode, whether it be castle or cottage.  Additional fresh flowers, when available, were placed atop the mixture.

17th Century potpourri vessel

Check back next week for post five, “Potpourri in the Victorian Era, “in the series, “A History of Potpourri.”


A History of Potpourri [Part 3 of 7]

Potpourri in Ancient Egypt, Middle Ages, and Early Renaissance [Part 3 of 7]


This post is the third in a seven-part series on potpourri throughout history.  In this session, we’ll cover potpourri in Ancient Egypt, as well as during the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance.


Ancient Egypt

Painting from Tomb of Nakht

Fragrant lavender, thyme and chamomile were all used during the mummification process when preparing bodies for the afterlife, making mummies smell better.  The remains of flowers, bouquets, and garlands strung with flowers and herbs have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. With their comforting powers of beauty and fragrance these botanicals were meant to accompany the dead into the afterlife.  How amazing those tombs must have smelled as the flowers and herbs, airtight and enclosed in pitch darkness, withered and dried and the fragrances changed and faded over the months, years, and eons.



The Middle Ages to Early Renaissance

A Medieval Garden

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cloth bags filled with fragrant dried flowers and herbs were placed in closets and drawers, and with bedding and linens.  These were quite practical in their use for adding good scent and covering up bad scent, especially when laundering clothing was so infrequent. Bathing, too, was not done on a regular basis, and women tucked sachets, and even specially made small wooden vessels filled with sweet-smelling dried herbs, into their underclothes while they were worn.


It was common practice for peasants to hang bunches of wild herbs used for medicinal and other practical purposes to dry around their cottages.  The combination of scents of these herbs added pleasant aroma and brightened their environment.  Many of these dried herbs acted as insect repellents, too.

Getting the Strewing Herbs Ready

From the Middle Ages through the early Renaissance rushes and straw provided a refreshing, soft, thick cushion to floors, adding insulation and warmth, and absorbing moisture. This flooring was also host to debris from the family and their household pets, spilled beverages, and to a variety of insect pests. This natural flooring was changed twice yearly, and over time, of course, became intensely “pungent.” To remedy unpleasant smells from the flooring, the practice of strewing herbs came about. Fresh herbs were tossed and strewn onto the floor to create a top layer which when walked upon were crushed, releasing the essential oils of the herbs and adding much-needed pleasant aromas to the home. Strewing herbs were chosen for their wonderful fragrance, or for their insect-repelling qualities. Strewing fresh layers of these herbs was a regular chore, since the fragrances faded over time and would need to be renewed with a new batch of botanicals to be added to the flooring.  Roses, lavender, marjoram, tansy, daisies, sage, violets, mints, chamomile, and basil were just some of the materials used for strewing.


Check back next week for post four, “Potpourri in the 17th Century”  in the series, “”A History of Potpourri.”

A History of Potpourri (Part 2 of 7)

Scenting the Cave 

This is the second blog post in a seven-part series on the history of potpourri.

Cave Painting of Flowers



Though the remains of floral bouquets have been found in burial graves along with the bones of prehistoric people, we can only speculate about early Man’s use of preserved flowers and herbs to add or mask scent in caves or primitive structures.  It’s more than likely that prehistoric people had some unpleasant smells lingering around the old cave homestead, from foul-smelling food scraps to unwashed bodies.  Just because their surroundings were austere does not mean that good scents did not appeal to them.  It’s likely that our early ancestors were as attracted to good-smelling things as we are nowadays, especially considering how connected they were to the natural world.


Wild herbs and flowers used for medicinal purposes or for their fascinating beauty were probably brought into the cave, dried naturally on their own in the cave over time, and in their dried state, especially when crushed, were found to release subtle aromas making various areas of the domicile smell great. Maybe our enchantment with herbal and floral fragrances in the home began here.


Check back next week for part three!

A History of Potpourri [Part 1 of 7]


Potpourri has been around since the beginning, satisfying our inner desire to decorate and make our shelter “home.” Join The Herb Lady on an adventure through time, and tune in weekly for the new series “A History of Potpourri.”


Painting of a woman making potpourri, 1867


“Potpourri,” from the French word for “rotten pot“ (“pot-” meaning “pot” and  “-pourri“ meaning “rotten“), is commonly used to describe “a collection of dried flower petals, leaves, herbs, and spices that is used to scent the air.” It was common practice for the French in the early 17th century to use these mixtures to scent their homes.  


Surely they were not the first to use botanicals to scent their dwellings, so before we get to specifics about France and its rotten pots, let‘s explore the use of dried flowers and herb mixtures to scent interiors throughout the ages.  


In the coming weeks, these posts will cover an elaborate timeline of potpourri throughout history. Check back next week, starting right at the beginning with “Scenting the Cave.”