The Perfume-Tree Ylang-Ylang


"Once upon a time ", - so the beginning of a Philippine fairytale - "there lived a man together with his wife in harmony and in abundance". They lacked nothing - besides a child, which they longed for from their gods. The gods appeared in dream and spoke to them: "You will have a daughter. But we give you the strict instruction: "If your daughter has grown up, she may not touch any man . .  and give her the name "ylang". The daughter was born and grew up to a beautiful girl. She was courted by many suitors. So she was locked by the parents into a chamber. One evening in the absence of her parents she freed herself, however, and went in the garden to pick flowers. A strapping young man saw her. He took her hand and swore her: "I love you". But this was the signal for our gods, to fulfil their bad prophecy. Ylang vanished abruptly and a little tree with narrow, yellow petals took her place. The young man called the little tree "Ylang-Ylang" in remembrance of his beloved girl.

Since then many girls like to decorate themselves with the flowers of this tree (1). What's about this fragrant tree, which was first called in the Tagalog language "alang-alang", got entrance in the Philippine fairytale world and which has some economic importance?


The evergreen Ylang-Ylang tree (botanic name: Cananga Odorata) is part of the family of the custard apple plants and gets up to 20 meters high in the free nature. Generally, cultivated species are smaller and sometimes held as bushes by a continuous pruning.

The thin drooping branches show leathery dark green lanceolate leaves. They are approximately ten centimetres long, four centimetres wide and have waved edges. Numerous clusters of flower bundles grow out of the axes of the peripheral leaves. Every flower has six tongue-like, twisted petals which remind of a star. While some species are flourishing unremittingly almost the whole year, other kinds flourish at least twice a year (July/December). First the flowers are white, then they change into green-yellow and in older age in orange-reddish. Often the same tree shows different flower colourings. The flowers smell exceptionally strongly in the night and so they lure the moths, which are necessary for the fertilization. Later we see the development of little green fruits, which become black. The fruits have no economic importance.

Cultivation and distillation of oil

The Ylang-Ylang tree requires a sunny one, not too dry location. The tree living in free nature is unpretentious with regard to the nature of ground. Farm-trees grow mostly on fertile grounds and the farmers add fertilizers.

he tree is reproduced by seeds or seedlings. The first flowers are harvested after round about five years. To promote the spouting of flowers, a regular pruning of the trees is necessary. From the yellow flowers the best oil can be produced. They are picked normally in the early morning. There are different information with respect to the gain of oil. But according to the prevailing opinion the gain of oil is approximately 1.5 – 2.5 % - that means from 100 kg of flowers 1.5 – 2.5 litters of oil can be extracted.

Normally, the extraction of the brightly-yellow to yellow-brownish oil is made by a several-hour steam- distillation of the flowers. Depending on the distillation phase, three sometimes four fraction quality grades are known. The first distillation - it delivers approx. 40% of the complete quantity of oil - produces the best scent. This fraction is called "Ylang-ylang extra ". The following fractions deliver the "Ylang-Ylang" - oil or the cheaper, less fragrant "Canaga Oil", which is used for the manufacture of soaps and detergents. If there is no fraction of oil, it is called "Complete Oil." The different plant species and climatic factors have an influence on the quality of the produced oil. There are certain ISO standards for export oils which are not always reached in the local production.

If the technical prerequisites of water distillation are not at disposal, the drying of the blossoms is an alternative way. The dried flowers can be used as raw material for the manufacture of soaps and insecticides.

The special situation in the Philippines

The Ylang-Ylang tree is native in the Philippines and parts of Indonesia. Already in ancient time Ylang-Ylang flowers have been used - often together with Sampaguita flowers (description of plant: here) for decorative fragrant arrangements and bouquets. Sometimes the flowers served also as defence of bad spirits. From Indonesia we hear that the beds of new wedded bright pairs were adorned with flower tassels and the use of Ylang-Ylang oil by harem-women. In China gowns of rich mandarins have been moistened with the scented oil before putting them into textile chests.

It is less known that the Philippines before the first World War had a monopoly on the production of the oil. It was a F. Steck (1858 -- 1880), a German pharmacist, who produced the first time a high-quality Ylang-Ylang oil on a commercial basis with the help of distillation equipment imported from Germany. The European perfume industry of the ending 19th century (Victorian epoch) was an interested buyer of the oil, which was used particularly as Macassar oil in the context of hair care.

But with World War I and the stronger competition from other countries (particularly Reunion Islands, Madagascar, Comoro-Islands) a decline in the Philippine oil production took place., because the German producer lost their export markets. Presumably Coco Channel did not use anymore Philippine oil, when she brought in 1923 her famous Ylang-Ylang oil based perfume "Chanel No. 5" on market. The second World War strengthened the decline. Distilleries were closed and many trees cut. The flowers of the Ylang-Ylang tree were only used for decorative purposes , the production of oil falls into oblivion.

At the end of the eighties the cultivation of Ylang-Ylang trees and the commercial production of oil experience a renaissance again in the provinces Pampanga and Tarlac. In Pampangas places of cultivation with round about 14,000 trees are especially Guagua, Lubao and Floridablanca.

In the province Tarlac particularly the town of Anao has to be mentioned. Anao is sometimes praised to be the town with the best scent in the Philippines. They started in 1989 when 10,000 trees on 2500 hectares of land were planted with governmental support to improve the income situation of the rural population. The first cultivators had to learn the hard way. The capacity of the steam distillation machine wasn't sufficient and they did not reach the quality level required for the export of the oil. By now the situation has improved considerably. Now they have an energy and personal saving 50 kg – distillator which ensures a higher yield. The plantations have been enlarged and the number of the trees increased to 20,000.

Three kilos of flowers were sold for about 50 pesos in 2003. A litre of excellent perfume oil was sold for approx. 10,000 pesos. This corresponds to round about € 170. In the Internet trade 10 ml are often offered for 10 €, that corresponds a litter-price of almost € 1000. So the flowery sweet oil goes up in price by impressive 590 % cent on his way from the Philippine producer to the European consumer.

The use in the cosmetics

The oil has a jasmine like scent and smells sweet fruity-flowerily. It can be used unblended or blended with other perfume oils, for example with jasmine-, roses-, bergamots-, lemons- or sandalwood-oil. The Ylang-Ylang oil gives blended perfumes a warm, elegant aroma. We find Ylang-Ylang oil in perfume brands like "Acqua di Gio" of Giorgio Armani,"Poison" of Christian Dior or "Champ Elysee" of Guerlain. Ylang-Ylang oil can also be a component in bathing oils.

And now we are speaking from the emotional qualities, which are particularly propagated by aroma therapists. They praise the fragrance of oil especially because of its relaxing and anti depressive effects. They pretend, that the oil used as massage-, bath oil or room spray could reduce stress, timidity, stubbornness well as sexual frigidity. Even aggressive dogs could be calmed.

Aphrodisiac oils for example can be produced with equal parts of jasmine-, sandalwood- and Ylang-Ylang oil. Another Aroma therapist recommends for a "wonderful" a blend of oils consisting of six drops of muscatel sage, two drops Ylang-Ylang and two drops of jasmine. But do not exaggerate - too high concentrations can cause headaches and nausea. Maybe a comparison test between the "love-oil" and Viagra could bring new surprising results also with regard to financial costs.

There are also various indications of the oil in the field of medicine. In the skin care it removes eczemas and acne and calms the itching at insect bites. It kills pathogens and is effective at intestines infections and stomach troubles. The oil cleans the blood and lowers the blood pressure. On the other hand – what a miracle - it helps at erection disturbances. The oil breaks down sleeplessness, depressions, nervousness and relaxes at menstruation troubles. The miracle cure seems to be a real hell of a chap!

(1) Von der duftenden Blume Ylang-Ylang, in: Jozef Genzor: Philippinische Märchen, Hanau/Main, 1978, p. 86 

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2004