Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a perennial herb related to the ever-popular oregano, mint and lavender, all members of the Lamianceae family.1 The plants are native to Malaysia and the Philippines.2 Since it doesn’t produce seeds, it’s grown by taking cuttings from another plant.
The plant has a bushy growth and produces pale pink flowers. For centuries patchouli has been cultivated for the essential oil. Both the leaves and flowers are fragrant, but it’s the leaves that are harvested to produce the oil.3
The strongly scented oil is produced through steam distillation. It is one of the most widely used traditional Chinese medicines4 and is popular in the making of soaps, perfumes, deodorants and detergents for its scent and its oil’s fixative properties.
History of the Aromatic Patchouli Plant
Patchouli has a long history from Asia and the Far East as perfume, incense and bug repellent. It gained popularity in Europe during the 1860s and then again in the 1960s during what’s now called the “hippie movement.”5 In fact, the scent of patchouli is known as the “scent of the ‘60s.”6
It was once valued so highly you could exchange 1 pound of the herb for 1 pound of gold. Legend holds that the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, who you may know as King Tut, was buried with 10 pounds of patchouli essential oil in his tomb for use in the afterlife.
In the 1800s it was used to scent fine silks and fabrics exported from India and to repel moths and other insects during transport. The scent soon became associated with fine fabric. Some English and French manufacturers took advantage of this and used artificial oil to perfume their garments and boost sales.
Historically,7 both the essential oil and the plant had medicinal uses. The wide range of benefits spanned emotional and physical conditions. For instance, it was used to treat depression, nervousness and insomnia. It was also used for physical maladies, including inflammation, athlete’s foot, dandruff, water retention and impetigo.
In the current market, a large portion of patchouli oil is produced in Indonesia, China, India and the Philippines; demand for the natural oil continues to grow.
Ditch DEET — Choose Patchouli as Your Bug Repellant
Long summer nights, bonfires and picnics are just around the corner — as well as mosquitoes. You may be tempted to pick up a bottle of insect repellent but think twice before you do. It was 1946 when the U.S. Army patented DEET,8 a common ingredient in popular insect repellent products. But, despite the length of its time on the market, it is not wise to use DEET.
Some experts believe that using small quantities is not harmful, but if you spend any amount of time outdoors during the summer months, you’ll likely use more than small quantities. Prolonged exposure can damage the cells in your brain, as scientists have shown in animal studies.9 It’s also known to trigger neurobehavioral deficits.10
The chemical was used heavily during the Persian Gulf War and resulted in soldiers who experienced a list of symptoms, including loss of muscle control, strength and coordination as well as memory loss, headaches and tremors.11 The symptoms can show up months later, making it difficult to link to the product. Symptoms may be worse when DEET is combined with other chemicals or medications.
In a study of 143 National Park Services employees,12 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found correlations between DEET exposure and depression, anxiety, insomnia, muscle cramps and urinary hesitation. Skin rashes and blisters were also reported. This is the same chemical in the bug repellent you may have been buying.
When compared to 38 essential oils, undiluted patchouli essential oil has demonstrated its effectiveness in repelling mosquitoes for two hours.13 Another study team determined that the chemical composition of the plant has:14
“… the potential to be used as an ideal eco-friendly approach for the control of mosquitoes. This is the first report on the mosquito repellent and pupicidal activities of the reported P. cablin chemical compositions.”
Get Skin and Hair Benefits From Patchouli
Patchouli essential oil has long been used to treat skin and hair conditions. In Asia it has traditionally been used to help treat dandruff and an oily scalp.15 New Directions Aromatics suggests adding five drops of it to your hair conditioner to treat your scalp and strengthen your hair.
Patchouli oil is a common ingredient in cosmetics since the scent masks noxious odors from potentially toxic chemicals.16 The oil also has some unique qualities that help your skin. For instance, it’s traditionally been used to treat eczema and acne as well as aging skin.17
In one animal study, the data showed patchouli oil could help prevent photoaging in the presence of UV light, possibly due to its antioxidative properties.18 The astringent properties help reduce the appearance of aging skin by enhancing muscle and nerve contractions. The astringent properties also have a positive effect on varicose veins and hemorrhoids.19
It’s known as a cell rejuvenator, which reportedly helps speed the healing of cuts, reduces the appearance of acne scars and diminishes the development of scar tissue as wounds heal.20
Antidepressant, Analgesic and Anti-Inflammatory Properties
The oil is frequently used in aromatherapy to help boost mood, reduce issues with insomnia and calm nervousness.21 One to two drops on your pillow may help you relax, gain control of your emotions and enjoy deeper sleep.22
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have long used patchouli oil to soothe the pain and discomfort as the result of inflammatory conditions. Currently, scientists are beginning to identify the actions responsible for this effect at the cellular level.23
There is some evidence that the analgesic effects of patchouli oil may be related to its anti-inflammatory properties.24 This is encouraging for those with inflammatory conditions such as gout and arthritis, which may respond to the oil.25
In practice, it has also demonstrated the ability to help control nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and appetite.26 The antiemetic property may be related to patchouli’s ability to reduce exaggerated contractions of the gastrointestinal tract.27
Prebiotic and Antibacterial Capacities Support Health
Patchouli oil has been used to treat fevers and colds as well as headaches.28 In an animal study,29 a bioactive component of patchouli oil was active against H1N1 flu virus in two different experiments. In one, mice were infected with a lethal H1N1 virus; treatment increased survival rate and time. In the second group with a nonlethal infection, the length of infection was reduced.
The oil has antibacterial properties as well.30 Using lab testing and molecular docking technology, a tool in structural molecular biology, researchers found “antimicrobial test in vitro proved that patchouli oil had strong antimicrobial effects.” A review of the literature found patchouli was effective against specific strains of bacteria, viruses and fungi, including:31
Influenza A (H2N2) virus
The plant is traditionally used for gastrointestinal disturbances, leading one research team32 to investigate its potential for prebiotic effects on the beneficial bacteria living in your gut microbiome. Scientists treated mice with three active components of patchouli essential oil over 15 days and collected fecal and mucosal samples.
They found that the treatment group had a greater diversity of gut microbes. Some of the bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) beneficial to the gut, were thriving. They also found three harmful bacteria were reduced in the treatment group. The researchers found the additional production of SCFAs to be helpful, writing:33
“Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are the major bacterial metabolites with divert beneficial effects to the host energy metabolism and immune responses. Animal and epidemiological studies also reveal that SCFAs derived from the prebiotic uptake reduce the symptoms of various difficult diseases, such as autism, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, as well as cancer.”
Grow and Make Your Own Infusion
As described in the video, patchouli is easy to grow and maintain. It’s a warm weather herb that enjoys the sun and thrives in the areas marked by the USDA as hardiness zones 10 and 11.34 In cooler climates, the plants will thrive indoors on a sunny windowsill when kept above 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 Celsius). The plant enjoys moist soil.
The leaves are ready to be harvested about five to six months after you’ve planted your cutting. The stems begin to turn brown and the plants become more aromatic as harvest time approaches. The leaves should be dried at home for three to four months before you use them to make oil or brew up a cup of tea.
Leaf.tv offers a simple method of diffusing the leaves in oil at home for your personal use.35 Whole, dried leaves may also be added to hot water for a calming yet energizing tea.36
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