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CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 99, NO. 9, 10 NOVEMBER 2010
Origin of the name ‘patchouli’ and its history
R. Murugan and C. Livingstone
India is one of the few countries in the world that has rich cultural practices and health traditions. Its
ancient practices still hold the key for many modern-day products and techniques. Patchouli essential oil is
one such product that originated and was popularized from Indian indigenous practice. Though the patchouli
herb had been used for many centuries in Asian countries, it came to be appreciated in Europe only in 1840s
through its unique aroma associated with the exported Indian fabrics. This led to the popularization of
patchouli and extraction of its essential oil. The name ‘patchouli’ also originated in India. Though some
information regarding patchouli is already known, this note elucidates the plant’s origin, correct nomencla-
ture, its ancient uses, the origin of its name and its popularization in Europe.
The use of herbs to give fragrance in per-
fumes dates back to the dawn of civiliza-
tion. Perfumes were in use even before
4500 BC in the Egyptian culture. Many
aromatic essential oils such as cassia,
cinnamon, artemisia, marjoram, calamus,
juniper, frankincense, etc. were used in
ancient times for fragrance purposes,
frankincense being the most preferred
among them. Aromatic herbs were also
used in Chinese, Indian and other cul-
tures. In Ayurveda, aromatic herbs in
fresh, dried or juice form have been used
for healing. Although aromatic herbs
were used for many centuries in India, it
was the Arabs who introduced the prac-
tice of utilizing fragrance in the form of
essential oil. Their expertise in distilla-
tion paved the way for the genesis of
many essential oils such as rose oil, jas-
mine oil, sandalwood oil, etc. for making
attars1. However, the use of patchouli in
the form of essential oil was not reported
in any culture of the world, though
patchouli herb has been used as medicine
in China, and as medicine and insect
repellent in India from historic times.
Uses of patchouli herb
Patchouli herb (Figure 1) has been used
in the major medical systems of the
world, viz. traditional Chinese medicine
and Ayurveda for both external and
internal applications2. In Chinese medi-
cine, it has been used for centuries as de-
coction with other drugs for treating
cold, nausea, diarrhoea, dermatitis, vom-
iting, abdominal pain, headache, fever,
dampness and to stimulate appetite3–7. In
India, in the ancient times, leaves of the
patchouli plant had been primarily used
as insect repellent to keep insects away
Importance of patchouli
Patchouli oil, extracted from the dried
leaves and young twigs of Pogostemon
cablin (Blanco) Benth. (Lamiaceae) is
one of the important essential oils exten-
sively used in perfumery. Apart from its
characteristic heavy, woody, earthy and
camphoraceous odour, it has long-lasting
and strong fixative properties. The main
and important chemical compounds
of patchouli oil are patchouli alcohol,
-patchoulene and pogostol11,12.
The odour of patchouli oil is said to be
more powerful than any other essential
oil obtained from plants13,14. It blends
well with other essential oils and imparts
strength, alluring odour and long-lasting
qualities to other essential oils and per-
fumes and helps prevent rapid evapora-
tion of perfumes. Since it has strong
fixative and long-lasting properties, it is
widely used as an important base ingre-
dient in many fragrant products. It is also
used as a flavouring agent in low concen-
tration in alcoholic and non-alcoholic
beverages, baked food, candy and frozen
dairy desserts, gelatins, puddings, meat
and meat products3,4. In addition, patch-
ouli oil possesses anti-inflammatory,
antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-
depressant and insect repellent proper-
Nomenclature of patchouli plant
Patchouli plant, P. cablin is indigenous
and native to the Philippines16. It was
first described in 1837 as Mentha cablin
Blanco from the Philippines by Francisco
Manuel Blanco in Flores de Filipinos
(Flora of Philippines). The word cablin
is derived from cablan, which is the ver-
nacular name of this species in the Philip-
pines16,17. Later, this plant was transferred
to its proper genus and renamed P.
cablin by Bentham in 1848. Patchouli
has been differently named by different
botanists. In 1845, Pelletier described
and illustrated this species grown in the
hothouse in France as P. patchouly. In
1847, Tenore described the patchouli
plant grown in Italy as P. suavis. In
1849, William Hooker13 also described
and illustrated patchouli grown in Botanic
Garden, Kew, as P. patchouli. It was also
described as P. javanicus Back. & Adelb.
by Backer and Adelbert in 1954. J. D.
Hooker described Indian patchouli plant,
Pogostemon heyneanus Benth., which is
indigenous to India (the Western Ghats)
and Sri Lanka, as P. patchouli in the
Flora of British India, where the patch-
ouli plant (P. cablin) is described as
P. patchouli var. suavis18. Since the
patchouli plant and Indian patchouli
plant have been described and referred
by the single name, P. patchouli, there is
confusion on the identity. P. heyneanus
is distinct and is different from P. cablin.
However, all the names such as
Figure 1. Pogostemon cablin (Blanco)
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 99, NO. 9, 10 NOVEMBER 2010 1275
P. patchouly, P. patchouli, P. suavis,
P. patchouli var. suavis and P. javanicus
refer to a single plant, P. cablin, which is
patchouli of commerce.
Patchouli in ancient China
Although patchouli has been used in
Chinese medicine for centuries, the Flora
of China reveals that it is not indigenous
to China19. It is stated that patchouli was
introduced into China for medicinal uses
during AD 420–589 and later it was culti-
vated in the Guangdong Province of
southern China around the 11th cen-
tury2,5,20. However, it is not clear when
the Philippines plant reached China.
Lophanthus rugosus Fisch. & C.A. Mey.
[= Agastache rugosa (Fisch. & C.A.
Mey.) Kuntze] and Microtoena patch-
oulii (C.B. Clarke ex Hook.f.) C. Y. Wu
et Hsuan (Lamiaceae), which are indige-
nous to China, have been used in Chi-
nese medicine for many centuries for
various ailments5,6,16,21,22. As patchouli
looks similar and has odour similar to
those of these two species5,6,16, the Chi-
nese may have started using patchouli in
place of L. rugosus. Since patchouli was
initially cultivated in Guangdong Province,
in Chinese it has been called ‘Guang-
Huo-Xiang’ to differentiate it from L.
rugosus, which is called ‘Huo-Xiang’2,5,7.
Introduction of patchouli
(P. cablin) into India
Some researchers believe that the patch-
ouli plant originated in India5,23. But it is
not indigenous to India and it was intro-
duced here only in 1834. To a query in
1888, relating to the ‘actual’ source of
patchouli, the then Keeper of the Herbar-
ium of the Royal Gardens, Kew, Daniel
Oliver opined that the true patchouli of
commerce (P. cablin) was not indigenous
to any part of India. George King, the
then Superintendent (1871–1897) of the
Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta (now the
Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah), also
affirmed that this plant was not indige-
nous to India, but it had been introduced
into the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta
from Straits Settlement14. This plant was
introduced in 1834 when Nathaniel Wal-
lich was the Superintendent of the Royal
Botanic Garden, Calcutta (1817–1842).
He received the patchouli plants from
G. Porter, the then in-charge of Botanic
Garden at Penang, Straits Settlements,
where it was cultivated16. Before botani-
cally describing this species, i.e. in 1837,
it was introduced into India in 1834 as
the ‘patchouli’ plant.
Origin of the name ‘patchouli’
P. heyneanus, the Indian patchouli plant,
was first described and illustrated as Cot-
tam by van Rheede in 1690 in Hortus
Malabaricus24. Bentham described
P. heyneanus in 1830 based on the
specimens collected by Heyne from
Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This plant is
indigenous to peninsular India and Sri
Lanka. It is widely distributed in the
Western Ghats. Earlier, this species was
widely cultivated in home gardens for
medicinal purposes in peninsular
India16,24. Earlier, names such as
‘patcha’, ‘patchapat’ or patchouli were
invariably applied to any plant that had
the characteristic patchouli odour, in the
Indian markets. M. patchoulii and P. hey-
neanus were also sold as patchapat or
patchouli leaf in Calcutta and Bombay
markets respectively. These local names
were exclusively applied to P. heyneanus
in the western part of India16. Therefore,
the name patchouli was used in the
Indian markets even before the patchouli
plant, P. cablin, was described and intro-
duced into India. Further, this species has
never been named as or called patchouli
in the local languages in the Philippines,
China and South East Asian regions. The
name ‘patchouli’ appears to have phone-
tically evolved from ‘pacchilai’ in Tamil.
Since this word [pacchi (pacchai) means
green and ilai means leaf] has been used
for centuries for P. heyneanus25,26, the
name patchouli must have been derived
from Tamil2,10,15,22. The Oxford Advanced
Learner’s Dictionary (7th edn) also
affirms that the word ‘patchouli’ is
derived from the Tamil word ‘pacculi’,
this vernacular name was also used for
P. vestitus Benth27. P. heyneanus is also
called ‘kathir pacchai’ in Tamil28,29.
‘Kathir’ here refers to the spiked nature
of inflorescence that is similar to the
inflorescence of cereals. Therefore, the
name patchouli ought to have originated
from the Tamil name ‘pacchilai’.
Popularization of patchouli
It has been reported that the patchouli
herb was primarily used in India as
insect repellent to keep insects away from
garments2,8–10. However, the literature
mentions that patchouli was introduced
into India in 1834 (ref. 16). Further, no
cultivation of patchouli plant was
recorded in any part of India before its
introduction in 1834. Initially, P. heyne-
anus was sold in Bombay market as
patchouli or patchapat or pacha before
the patchouli plant was introduced into
India. It might be either P. heyneanus or
any other indigenous shrubby Pogoste-
mon species such as P. benghalensis
(Burm.f.) Kuntze, P. plectranthoides
Desf. and P. pubescens Benth., having
leaf aroma similar to that of patchouli
which could have been used as insect re-
pellent in ancient India.
Though the patchouli herb had been
used in China and India for many centu-
ries, it became familiar in Europe in the
1840s through imported Indian shawls
associated with the characteristic patch-
ouli odour13,14. Since Pogostemon species
have insect-repellent properties due to
the essential oil, the dried leaves or leaf
powder of any shrubby Pogostemon spe-
cies could have been used in packing
these fabrics during export to keep-off
insects. The French perfume manufactur-
ers at last discovered the secret odour of
the Indian shawls as due to the associa-
tion of Pogostemon species. Later, they
learned to perfume their homespun
shawls and other articles with the im-
ported patchouli leaves. There is evidence
that indigenous shrubby Pogostemon
species from India had also been taken to
Europe around 1800. For example, the
genus Pogostemon (including P. plec-
tranthoides type species of the genus)
was described by Desfontaines in 1815
based on the specimens collected from a
plant grown in the hothouse of Jardin des
plantes, Paris. This plant was believed to
be sourced from southern India (D.
Tirvengadum, pers. commun.). It is said
that the dried patchouli leaves were first
imported into London in 1844 from
China via New York13. After the Europe-
ans realized the importance of patchouli
in 1840s, they started looking for its
actual source (origin). At that time,
small-scale cultivation of patchouli (P.
cablin) was noticed in the Strait Settle-
ments (British Malaya) and it was almost
exclusively carried out by the Chinese
immigrants from southern China for
medicinal uses16. However, this plant is
not indigenous to the Malaysian re-
gion30,31. Hence, it is believed that this
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 99, NO. 9, 10 NOVEMBER 2010
plant could have been brought from
southern China by the Chinese people to
the Strait Settlements. Therefore, search
for the patchouli plant could have led to
the then British-controlled Strait Settle-
ments. Later, large-scale cultivation of
patchouli was started in the Strait Set-
tlements and subsequently it was intro-
duced into Java, Sumatra and other
Indonesian islands from Penang10. The
chief supply of patchouli leaf material to
Europe was initially from the Strait Set-
tlements14. The effort to introduce differ-
ent varieties of patchouli plant for
commercial cultivation in India was first
attempted by the Tata Oil Mills in 1942.
Later in 1962, systematic cultivation and
research was initiated by the Central
Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic
Plants at its Regional Centre in Banga-
lore4. Subsequently, patchouli has been
cultivated in some parts of India. How-
ever, large quantities of patchouli oil are
still being imported into India.
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. We thank Prof.
K. V. Krishnamurthy, Department of Plant
Science, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirap-
palli and Dr D. Narasimhan, Department of Bot-
any, Madras Christian College (MCC),
Chennai for valuable suggestions and Dr D.
Tirvengadum, Museum National d’Histoire
Naturelle, Paris, France for providing valu-
able information on P. plectranthoides. We
also thank Dr Sheeba J. Irwin, Department of
Botany, MCC, Chennai and Dr Xue-Jun Ge,
Laboratory of Molecular Ecology, South
China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of
Sciences, Guangzhou, China for providing
valuable information on patchouli.
R. Murugan* is in the Foundation for
Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions,
74/2, Jarakabande Kaval, Attur Post, Via
Yelahanka, Bangalore 560 106, India
and C. Livingstone is in the Department
of Botany, Madras Christian College,
Tambaram, Chennai 600 052, India.
Edited and published by P. Balaram, Current Science Association, Bangalore 560 080.
Typeset by WINTECS Typesetters (Ph: 2332 7311), Bangalore 560 021 and Printed at Lotus Printers, Bangalore (Ph: 2320 9909)