The Cottage Smallholder

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The potpourri project: urgent update on fixatives


Photo: Why pums? I'm making a new chilli plum chutney tomorrow!

Photo: Why pums? I'm making a new chilli plum chutney tomorrow!

I haven’t has time to make as much potpourri as I would like to – which is lucky as I’ve discovered that I’m allergic to orris root. Up until this week I’ve used a spoon to mix the potpourri and ladle it in and out of jars so I had no idea. It was only when I was working with Lynn that I scooped some rose potpourri into a pretty bowl for her to photograph. I stirred it with my hand and within seconds my  palm was burning. The agony was quickly flushed away with cold water.

If Shill hadn’t mentioned that some people are allergic to orris root on my homemade pomander post,  I wouldn’t have twigged what was happening. Incidentally I’ve rubbed my hands with the pomander spice mix and have had no adverse reaction as the orris is diluted by the rest of the spices.

On an aside, orris powder is reckoned by some to be a potent love potion, sprinkled on pillows and bed linen. Here it would immediately precipitate cold showers!

Orris root is a fixative. A fixative is essential to preserve the scent of potpourri and stop it just smelling of old hay within a few months. The root and powder is very expensive so I hadn’t invested in loads, thank goodness.

What was I going to use as an alternative fixative? My fingers flew across the keyboard into the wonderful realm of the Internet. I discovered that all these herbs, leaves and spices can be used as a fixative: If you are making dry potpourri they all need to be dried.
Vetivert (vetiver)
Calamus root
Gum benzoin
Patchouli leaves
Cellulose fibre 
Clary sage leaves
Nutmeg (ground)
Myrtle leaves

And there must be many, many more.

I think that the reason why Barbara Ohrbach’s recipes work so well is that she uses several fragrant fixatives in her potpourri. She reckons that orris root is the easiest fixative to find so it’s included in most of her recipes. But with the above list you can supplement orris root with something else, if you are worried about allergic reactions. Potpourri needs to be trifled with every day or so to activate the scent. If you are interested in making your own potpourri why not invest in her bestselling book? The Scented Room can be bought on Amazon for just 1p plus postage! It has been in print since the 1980’s and is a classic.

  Leave a reply


  1. Many years ago I had a vintage recipe for a gorgeous fixative by a woman named Mrs Varga. I made a large batch once and now it seems I’ve lost it. I remember it had frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, tonka bean in it but the remaining ingredients are lost from memory.
    Do you have a similar recipe or perhaps even know of this particular one?
    I haven’t been blogging for many years but I always was so interested in your blogging. I’ll have to stop by and do some catching up.

    • Fiona Nevile

      Lynn, I don’t know of the fixative that you mention. My potpurri books are in store at the moment so I can’t look. Perhaps Google might help?

  2. Tracy Campbell

    We have a myrtlie shrub needs pruning is there any way to make some cash from it for our healing charity?

  3. aquart

    Thanks. Nutmeg and cinnamon I have but how will it go with rosemary, spearmint and lavender which is what we have in our garden, I wonder. And how much to use?

  4. brightspark

    Thanks for pointing out that orris root is prone to allergic reactions (or thanks to Shill, should I say!). I made some lavender water and needed orris root to fix it, but couldn’t find anywhere local to buy it. In the end, I didn’t fix it, with some strange results. Some of it turned red and some turned green – weird, huh? As I’ve got older, I’ve found that my skin is more sensitive to some things, so I shall be watchful now. Thanks.

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