PATCHOULI (Pogostemon cablin – Labiatae)

Patchouli essential oil is obtained from the leaves and young shoots of an herbaceous shrub (Pogostemon cablin) native to Malaysia, where it is called cablan. It is now cultivated in many places including the Seychelles, India (where it is known as patcha or patchapat), Indonesia and China. It grows to about 90 cm (3 ft) in height, and when rubbed the fresh leaves yield the characteristic earthy and woody smell of patchouli. The shrub bears flowers in terminal spikes; these are white with a tinge of mauve. The shrub is cropped two to three times a year, the leaves and shoots being dried before distillation. This is often done near the plantation as the packing of the leaves in bales for exportation can damage them. The plants weaken the soil so it has to be rotated with other crops from time to time. Replanting is apparently necessary every three to four years. Seed is rarely produced, so propagation is by cuttings.

The worldwide annual production of the oil is in the region of 500 – 550 tonnes. Sumatra produces about 450 tonnes of this; the shrub grows on the hills of Sidikolang and on the nearby island of Nias. Most of the world patchouli oil is processed through Singapore, Malaysia now exporting the essence rather than producing it. China is the second largest producer of the oil, averaging about 50 – 80 tonnes annually. This crop is more consistent than that from Indonesia, yet the oil itself is considered inferior in quality and so is very much cheaper. As the Indonesian prices and crops fluctuate, so the largest importers, the USA particularly, have had to turn to China where the production has grown in volume. India produces smaller quantities which are kept principally for local use.

The principal markets for the oil are the EEC and Switzerland (220 – 240 tonnes per year), the USA (210 – 220 tonnes, although this has increased recently), India (50 tonnes) and Japan (30 tonnes).

Patchouli has always played a large part in traditional Malay, Chinese and Japanese medicine, being attributed with stimulant, stomachic and antiseptic properties. It was the remedy against venomous snake and insect bites. Nowadays it is still used in its homelands as an antiseptic and insecticide. Arab doctors considered it effective against fevers, epidemics and many other illnesses.


Description: After drying in the sun, the young leaves and shoots are steam distilled. The oil is liquid and transparent and is a yellow-brown or greenish-brown, depending on its provenance. Sometimes patchouli oil can be very thick with a persistent smell, earthy and penetrating.

Patchouli is distilled in its country of origin, often in primitive metal containers which oxidize when in contact with the oil, turning it dark brown as iron is leached into it. No research has yet been done on whether this affects the oil’s curative properties. The perfume industry finds the colour of the unrefined oil undesirable, so they redistil it using a delicate process to remove the iron content. It is also not known what effects this ‘refining’ process has on the curative properties of the essential oil. It is hoped that in the future more of the original distillers will be able to afford the expensive stainless steel containers that do not react when in contact with the oil, so that the oil does not have to be distilled twice.

The principal constituents: Patchoulol (from 25 -50 per cent) and sesquiterpenes (d-gauiene, norpatchoulenol, patchoulene), with traces of benzoic and cinnamic aldehydes, cadinene, carvone, caryophyllene, coerulein, eugenol, humulene and seychellene. There is up to 35 – 40 per cent patchouli camphor in the dried leaves.

Dangers: Patchouli can be adulterated with cubeb and cedar oils. A synthetic patchouli has been produced, but this has not enjoyed much market success; it is now generally agreed that it is impossible to replicate patchouli exactly in an olfactory sense.


In illness and beauty
The antiseptic properties of patchouli were studied in 1922 by Gatti and Cayola, by Sarbach in 1962, and by many other well-known scientists. It is recommended for many skin conditions: allergies, herpes, impetigo, bed sores, burns, cracked skin, haemorrhoids, acne, seborrhoea and eczema. It acts as a bactericide and can help rejuvenate the skin.

For bad acne, mix together 10 ml (2 tsp) grapeseed oil, 1 drop wheat germ oil and 5 drops patchouli oil. Rub gently all over a clean face morning and night, and leave. Continue the usage for six months.

When, if it has not been successful, an alternative oil, like basil, should be used instead.
Apply patchouli oil neat on whiteheads and abscesses.
For seborrhoea, mix together 5 ml (1 tsp) each of soya and grape seed oils, and 15 drops patchouli oil. Massage into the scalp for a few minutes, cover with a warm towel, and leave for at least an hour. Shampoo off with a mild shampoo. Use this twice a week.
(See also bed sores, dandruff and hair problems.)

Other uses
Patchouli has a great part to play in perfumery as it acts as a natural fixative, reinforcing the woody note of perfume and giving it even greater intensity. The dried leaves can be bought and used (sparingly) in pot¬pourris; patchouli is also available as powder and shavings for this purpose. Use the powdered leaves in little sachets to perfume clothes and linen; this is traditional in India and China. Indian inks were once distinguished by their scent because they contained some patchouli; this helped fix the colour and make the ink dry quickly. To fix ink add 5 drops patchouli to a bottle of brown or violet ink. My newsagent says he always knows when I’ve paid my newspaper cheque as the till smells so wonderful.

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