I love homemade holiday decorations, especially those fashioned from natural materials. The scents of the season—evergreen, bayberry, cinnamon, cloves—muster memories, both real and imagined, of an old-fashioned Christmas. While the creative process is part of the pleasure, it’s always nice when you can preserve your handiwork to last for more than one season, which is why I enjoy making pomanders.
Traditionally, a pomander (from the French pomme d’ambre, meaning “apple of amber”) was an apple-shaped ball of sweetly-scented herbs and spices held together by ambergris. It was carried in a bag or encased within an ornate orb and suspended from the waist or neck. Used since the Middle Ages to mask unpleasant odors and prevent sickness due to “bad air,” pomanders among the wealthy were often made of gold or silver and encrusted with jewels, but by the 18th century they began to take the more common form of the clove-studded orange we know today.
In addition to oranges, pomanders can be made from lemons, limes, apples, pears, or kumquats. If you want this fragrant fruit to remain ripe with scent, cover the entire surface with cloves, then roll it in a mixture of ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and orris root powder. Allow the pomander to cure in the open air for a week and you’ll have an aromatic adornment that can last for years.
Pomanders lend themselves to all kinds of creative expression, so get inventive. For a sachet with cachet, use cloves to create patterns on the fruit, from simple lines and shapes to swirls and spirals, leaving some or most of the colorful skin visible. Tie a bow around the finished product and hang it on the tree, or pile several of the decorated fruits into a clear glass bowl for a sweet and spicy centerpiece.*
Pomanders are so easy to make that you can build an entire decorating scheme around them. If you take the necessary steps to properly preserve and care for them, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor all season long.
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For ease, I like to use the Williamsburg Pomander Ball Kit, which comes with cloves, preservative spices, ribbon, and detailed instructions, but do-it-yourselfers can use the following recipe (adapted from The Spice House):
¾ cup orris root powder†
½ cup cinnamon
¼ cup ground cloves
2 Tbsp. ground nutmeg
2 Tbsp. ground ginger
whole cloves (about ¼ cup per fruit)
whole oranges, apples, pears, lemons, or limes
Working from the top in a circular manner, poke holes in the fruit with a toothpick or cake tester and insert cloves by the pointed end, pressing in. It will take 30 minutes to an hour (or more) to completely cover the fruit, so put on some holiday music, make a cup of tea or hot chocolate, and settle in to enjoy the process. I find the repetitive method to be meditative and relaxing, which is a nice antidote to the holiday hustle and bustle.
When the fruit is covered (or your design is completed), mix the spices and orris root together in a shallow bowl or ziplock bag and either roll or shake the fruit in the powder until thoroughly coated. Tap or brush off the excess and set out to dry for several days.
The Williamsburg Pomander Ball Kit is not available online, but can be purchased from Williamsburg Celebrations by calling (757) 565-8642.
*Sparsely decorated fruit pomanders won’t last as long as densely covered designs, so keep an eye out for mold. To extend their life, put them in the refrigerator when not on display.
†Orris root is a member of the iris family. The powder is used as a fixative in perfumes and potpourri. It is available from Amazon and a number of online retailers.