Many decades ago, as a country girl finding herself in a city, with a small toddler, far from home and family I happily took advantage of our church’s free baby-sitting for members of the Quilter’s Group. As a ten-year 4-H’er in sewing, I was well acquainted with needle and thread, but had never done quilting. I felt drawn to it, possibly because my great-grandmother supported her family by quilting (even after she lost one eye) and her daughter also did some quilting. It was a lovely way to spend a morning WITH ADULTS, and feel productive. Our group of about fifteen women hand stitched the quilts, after they’d been pieced together by some ambitious stitcher, and charged a fee which went toward our mission work. I was one of the youngest members, through various ages up to Nell, a tiny 80 yr. old with nimble fingers that flew through the tiniest stitching. It was so relaxing, with interesting conversation, and someone always brought delicious treats.
By now, you are no doubt asking, “So what does this have to do with gardening?” Well, here’s the tale, so settle in. One morning as we worked, I was sitting next to Nell. The discussion was how we could make more money at our annual church Christmas bazaar. Usually The Quilters Group’s booth sold quilted pot holders, some interesting wall hangings, some fancy Victorian-type Christmas ornaments and some Barbie-doll clothes, but we felt we needed something different to up our sales over our usual $5-600 dollars. There were other groups in the church that had booths, so we couldn’t venture into baked goods, knitting, woodwork, painted items, etc. without stepping on some other groups’ “toes.”
Nell seldom spoke at length, so when she softly said “I have an idea, but I’d need lots of help” we all sat up with interest. She continued to explain that her grandmother had taught her to make potpourri when she was a child. Well, that brought all our thoughts to a halt, because not one of us had a clue what “potpourri” was. (Remember, this was 1971, before even Wal-Mart sold flagrantly colored, super-saturated wood chips as “fragrance.”) She said she had a tin of potpourri that was over a 100 years old, that still smelled wonderful and then she proceeded to explain that potpourri was a carefully blended mixture of flower petals and herbs, with essential oils added to enhance the natural fragrance of the plants. Her idea was that we would make the potpourri, and each of us would sew some pretty bags and small pillows to hold it. They could be plain or fancy, embroidered or lace. Possibly some members who like to go to garage sales could find pretty glass jars and small bowls. Nell said old sugar bowls with lids would be especially good finds. When she brought her tin of potpourri the following week, even the doubting Thomas’s were won over!
In order to make the potpourri, we would have to ask the 3,000 members of our church if we could come harvest their rose petals, lavender bushes, thyme and mint plants, peonies, violets, etc. Nell said she would make up the list, but since she no longer drove, she’d need someone to collect the materials. I had a little VW squareback, so I volunteered and spent the next few weeks organizing and turning our garage into a drying shed. One of our church members had a builders’ supply store, and donated several damaged sliding glass door window screens plus lots of cement blocks with broken corners. The hardware store owner donated two small fans and three nice plastic garbage cans with lids. I collected flower petals and herbs, dried them, and mixed them according to Nell’s instructions. Nell ordered the essential oils, spices and other botanicals we were missing.
It was one of the most interesting things I’ve done, and the members of the Quilters Group really came through with some lovely stitched items. Our booth had sachet bags, bowls and jars of pretty potpourri, filled linen drawer pillows, and potpourri bagged in cellophane tied with pretty ribbons. Customers were led to our booth by the wonderful scent, and since it was a unique item, we sold out quickly, making over $2,000 just for our booth alone! Of course, it wasn’t all profit because we had to deduct the initial costs of the essential oils and the orris root, which weren’t cheap. We immediately began to make plans for next year’s booth, and I began to wonder how we could cut costs.
The essential oils were beyond my abilities at that point, but as a farm girl I was determined to save some money by growing the orris root in my backyard. After all, it was an iris, and in Indiana they practically raised themselves so it couldn’t be that hard to grow them in Illinois. I was able to locate some plants of Iris germanica florentina from the famous Connecticut herb farm, Caprilands, and planted them in a sunny location as soon as the ground thawed. They grew quickly. When the buds appeared, I immediately clipped them off so the plant’s energy would go into producing larger roots. They expanded all summer into autumn. I dug them, divided and replanted the bed, harvesting as much as I could to be used as the “fixative” for our potpourri. After scrubbing the corms, I ground them in my meat grinder (no food processors then, you know!) and spread it out to dry. Nell had warned me that if I dried the corms first, they become hard as rocks and are almost impossible to grind. Once the small particles were dried, then I put them through my hand-cranked flour mill, twice! It was at this point that I decided it would probably be best to just purchase the ground orris root, because the amount I had produced was not even a tenth of what we’d need! Still, it was a great learning experience, and I had a greater appreciation of those medieval ladies and Elizabethan gentlewomen who developed the craft.
I still grow orris root, descendants of those first plants. They are a shorter iris, growing about 14″ tall, and are always the first of the regular (not dwarf) iris to bloom. The blossom is a full-sized bearded white with a slight tinge of blueness. They grow best in average but well-drained soil, in full sun. The corm has a light violet scent, and when dried and mixed with essential oils, flowers and spices it acts as a “fixative” for all those aromas, so the scents last much longer, often decades if properly stored in a cool, dry place out of light.
I love plants, like orris root, that have a history and a story. They will always be part of my garden. And maybe this year, with more time at home than usual, I’ll make a batch of Nell’s potpourri. I still have a tin from 1971, and it smells delicious! Now, where is that meat grinder…..