• Maureen Little

Pot Pourri & Tussie Mussies

I thought I would concentrate on something a little different in this blog post. It's still to do with flowers, but it's not how to grow them, it's more about how to use them. So here goes - first Pot Pourri.

Pot Pourri

It’s a shame that nowadays the term pot pourri often conjures up visions of dried out bits of non-descript, bark-like substances collecting dust in a bowl that some well-meaning friend gave you for your birthday about five years ago. Either that, or a bag of equally non-descript wood shavings, leaves and other ‘botanicals’ that the packet says will remind us of fluffy towels or Christmas cookies or will instantly transport us to a tropical paradise filled with the scent of vanilla, mango and ginger – all at once!

Harking back to days gone by isn’t always a good idea but I think when it comes to pot pourri, it's worth more than a backward glance. Flowers have long been used to scent the home, but it was during the eighteenth century that pot pourri came into its own. The term pot pourri was originally a culinary term roughly meaning a pot of mixed vegetables (literally ‘rotten’ or ‘addled’ pot, from the French for ‘rotten’: pourri, à la pourriture), but it was somehow hijacked and came to mean a pot of mixed fragrant flowers, herbs and spices – far from rotten! Bowls of pot pourri would be strategically placed around the home to fragrance the air – there were no artificial room sprays back then!

Unlike modern mixtures which are pretty much free-for-alls, a traditional pot pourri always contains roses, with whatever other flowers, petals, leaves and spices are available or desired – and definitely no artificially dyed pieces of wood shavings! A fixative is required, too, to prolong the fragrance: orris root powder, from Iris germanica var. florentina, is still widely used. And if you want a more intense scent, you can add a few drops of an essential oil.

How to Make Pot Pourri

Now, brace yourself. I’m going to mention the C word. Christmas! Why? Well, now is a really good time to gather, make and squirrel away some jars of home-made pot pourri to give as presents.

There are actually two types of pot pourri – dry and wet – but I’m going to give you the recipe for the easiest one to make, the dry one.

You will need:

2 to 3 teaspoons of your chosen spice/s

25g of powdered Iris germanica var. florentina (orris) root (readily available online)

6 drops of essential oil (optional)

1 litre in total of fragrant petals of your choice – this can be one variety or a mixture

25g fragrant herb leaves

1 teaspoon of additional ingredients, such as cloves, grated orange rind or star anise (optional)

To make the pot pourri, mix together the spices, orris root and essential oil. If you use essential oil, rub the mixture between your fingers and thumb to make sure the oil is evenly distributed.

In a separate bowl, mix together the rest of the ingredients. Add the spice mixture to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Put the mixture into an airtight container and store in a dark place for at least five weeks. Shake the container occasionally to redistribute the ingredients. After the ‘maturing’ time, put the pot pourri in a decorative bowl, or use it to fill bags.

And there you have it – a lovely, home-made present.

Pot Pourri as Fly Repellent

I spent many years living in the country with a scarecrow in the garden, skylarks singing overhead, livery stables down the road, and beautiful Jersey cows munching their way through the meadow a stone’s throw away. The perfect pastoral idyll? You would think so, yes. Except that where there are animals, there are flies. This is an inevitable and inescapable fact. Now, you can spray the disease-ridden bugs with a chemical concoction which, I have to say, is very effective but not exactly environmentally friendly. You can put up sticky fly papers in the hope that they will fling themselves against it and commit kamikaze. You can line up a windowsill full of Venus Fly Traps and watch with malevolent glee as the creatures are slowly digested. During the summer holidays a friend of mine armed her two children with fly swats and paid them a penny for each dead fly – it certainly kept them busy and reduced the fly population at the same time!

And then I hit on the idea of a fly-repelling pot pourri which you could place at strategic positions around the house. After a bit of research, I discovered that Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff) Lavandula angustifolia (lavender), Mentha spicata (mint), Ocimum basilicum (basil), Ruta graveoloens (rue), Salvia rosmarinus (rosemary), and Tanacetum vulgare (tansy), among others, are all natural fly deterrents. The herbs won’t kill them of course, but it might just make them buzz off. Make up a pot pourri, as above, using these herbs

Tussie mussies or nosegays

Quite where the name tussie mussie came from is lost in the annals of time, although there is a reference to it the Promptorium Parvulorum, a Latin word list dating from the 1440s. And you couldn’t really guess what a tussie mussie actually is from its name. Nosegay is a little easier to explain: the nose bit is obvious; gay is apparently an archaic term for toy or ornament. So we have a toy for the nose! You are still no wiser? Well, let’s call it by yet another alternative name – posy. That’s better! We all know that a posy is made up of a variety of flowers and greenery and is like a ‘mini’ bouquet. Traditionally, these flowers and greenery are aromatic herbs, chosen either for their fragrance or their disinfectant properties, and this gives us a clue to why they were carried in the first place. When malodorous smells and infection were rife, both ladies and gentlemen would carry them under their noses (hence nosegay) to keep such smells and contagion at bay. Many believed that diseases of all kinds were air-borne so these posies of herbs were the first line of defence, particularly during periods when the plague was prevalent.

The posies would almost always contain herbs such as Ruta graveoloens (rue), Artemisia abrotanum (southernwood), Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary), Salvia officinalis (sage) and Thymus vulgaris (thyme), all of which contain antiseptic properties.

* Picture 1

Later, during the Victorian era, when floriography (otherwise known as the language of flowers, where each flower carries with it a particular meaning, and sometimes more than one) was popular, the carrying and sending of tussie mussies took on an additional function. As well as being fragrant, they could also convey a message: for example, mint means virtue, a red rosebud signifies purity and loveliness, myrtle stands for love. Such tussie mussies are assembled in a particular way. There is a central flower, such as a rose, and then concentric circles of other herbs and flowers arranged around it. A decorative surround of leaves or a lace doily finishes off the posy, and the whole thing is tied together with ribbon.

The custom of making and giving tussie mussies seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance just now. And, if you grow your own herbs and flowers, how lovely it is to pick some to give to a friend for their birthday, or to celebrate the birth of a child, or even to express sympathy if there is a bereavement: to my mind, much nicer than shop-bought flowers.

To give you an idea, here is a ‘recipe’ for a birthday tussie mussie for a friend.

In the centre, a Pelargonium capitatum (rose-scented pelargonium), meaning preference, with a selection of the following surrounding it:

Valeriana officinalis (valerian) flowers - accommodating disposition

Petroselinum crispum (parsley) - festivity

Ocimum basilicum (sweet basil) - good wishes

Fragaria vesca (wild strawberry) –-perfection

Mentha spicata (spearmint) - warmth of sentiment

A final circle of Foeniculum vulgare (fennel) meaning worthy of all praise; this would finish it off very nicely.

If you do give a tussie mussie, be sure to send a note of the meaning of the flowers. Some plants can have double, contradictory meanings; for example, Lavandula angustifolia (lavender) can mean constancy and devotion, but it can also mean distrust!

(* Picture 1 - Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holder and obtain permission to reproduce this image. Please do get in touch with any information relating to this image or the rights holder.)

STOP PRESS! Don't miss my post on 29th July for a give-away!