I spent a good chunk of the 1980s listening to Prince, Madonna, and Duran Duran, puffing up my bangs, feathering the sides of my hair, crushing on Tommy Howell, wearing leg warmers, reading Sweet Valley High books, and watching certain films—Flashdance, The Pirate Movie, Airplane!—over and over again. Omnipresent in my tween years was something else, not so much a sight as a collection of distinct scents, the clean note of lavender, the heady sweetness of rose, the spiciness of pine, orange peel, cinnamon sticks, and cloves: potpourri!
Potpourri had a moment in the ‘80s. You couldn’t walk through a living room without bumping into shriveled petals and crispy buds. Across the nation, bowls of dead flowers breathed scents over sofas and coffee tables, and when the potpourri snuck into sachets, those perfumes permeated our underwear drawers.
Two of my friends, twins who lived on my street, turned me on to the potpourri craze when they gave me some as a gift, along with the novel The Secret Garden. Vividly, I remember slipping into that classic while sniffing the heather-scented leaves. It was an experience. I became a big fan of potpourri and resolved to try rustling up my own varieties. The objective appealed to my inner Anne Shirley, my Martha Stewart DIY mindset. Potpourri, I decided, was the stuff of genteel industry and romance.
I didn’t quite achieve my goal. Good potpourri requires fixatives like orrisroot and excellent essential oils, and I didn’t have the money to invest in quality ingredients. But I had a lot of fun drying flowers, tossing them together, and foisting them on relatives. I collected my materials wherever I could find them, stealing my mother’s peonies, lavender, and marigolds, denuding Grandma’s rosebushes, and foraging for chamomile in my neighbor’s herb bed. Nobody’s garden was safe, and neither was any unguarded spice rack. I needed those bottles of cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. The day after my sister went to a semiformal, I remember begging her for her carnation corsage. And whenever my dad got my mom roses or a flower arrangement? In no time at all, those blooms would be hanging upside down in my bedroom, withering into papery potpourri ingredients.
Some flowers dried poorly. I recall trying to preserve chrysanthemums I’d wangled on some occasion (a funeral, probably) and was deeply disappointed with the results. Mums must contain a lot of moisture because they molded. Other flowers, like strawflowers, would dehydrate perfectly. In fact, I barely had to wait to use them. They were inherently dry. My experimenting led me to attempt various preserving methods, and I must have been partial to the tucked-between-pages-of-a-book technique because, to this day, when I open one of my old favorites, inevitably, pressed pansies and ferns fall out.
I wonder if I took to this process so enthusiastically because it felt like playing. After all, I was still very young when the obsession gripped me, and potpourri-making wasn’t so different from the mysterious “potions” I’d once concocted with weeds in the backyard. Maybe, too, I simply liked the idea of rescuing something lovely—that pinecone from a Christmas arrangement, that violet growing on the edge of my grandparents’ woods, that single pink Valentine’s Day rose—and presenting it in a pretty bowl, slipping it into a beloved novel, or hanging it from a hook.
These days, I prefer my flowers alive. I don’t even pick blooms for bouquets very often. I’d rather leave them in the gardens. But I haven’t lost my potpourri-making impulse. I just satisfy it with words instead of petals. That happy time, this miserable occasion, the confrontation that changed me, altered my beliefs, and awakened my mind… Writing is a wonderful way to treasure, distill, examine, and understand these moments. And of all the writing I do, my blogging does this best. It’s kin to my posy plucking and preserving. Except it is my life being saved.