Ylang ylang: Luxurious sweet smelling nostalgia

Ylang ylang is a rich essential oil used in high-end perfumery and aromatherapy.

In April - May months, the courtyard of my maternal home had a splendid flora offering vibrant hues and scents that made a seven year old spellbound! The coral red mayflower, pink lilies, magenta and yellow Rajamalli, change rose (the huge white flowers in morning, appear pink by dusk!) yellow allamanda and a Ylang ylang (pronounce as ee-lang ee-lang) tree with droopy greenish yellow flowers to name a few.

Childhood experiences, good or bad, make deep impressions throughout our lives. The sweet smell of apurvachampaka /ylang ylang flowers is a unique memory for me. Those profuse green flowers turn yellowish as they mature (take 15-20 days) and have an unusual delicate fruity scent that can be perceived even at some distance from the tree. The name ylang ylang has its origin from Philippine 'alang- ilang' meaning 'flower of flowers', depicting the manner in which flowers flutter or hang in the breeze. Scientifically known as Cananga odorata, the species has originated in tropical rainforests of Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, parts of Indochina and Queensland in Australia. The tree is an excellent agroforestry species used for firewood in native places and an economically important source of floral essential oil. "In Kerala, Cananga is seen as avenue/ ornamental tree or in forests" said Dr. TK Kunhamu, Professor & Head at College of Forestry, Thrissur.

Tree loves acidic soil (acidic soil predominates in Kerala except Palakkad), sunlight and reaches upto 15- 20 m height.  They are introduced and cultivated commercially in Madagascar, Mayotte and Swahili speaking Comoros islands off the southeastern African shore. In those plantations, trees are severely pruned to maintain a height of 2-3m in order to facilitate growth and spreading of branches horizontally. About 2 to 20 flower buds are seen in each branch at a time. Fresh mature flowers are picked for oil extraction throughout the year, but their yield will be highest in May, June, July, November and December.

A mature tree (4-70 years old) produces 5-100 kg flowers per year depending upon growth conditions. From 100 kg of flowers about 2 kg of oil can be extracted and the volume decreases with the age of the tree. The cost of ylang ylang oil in Indian online platforms varies from 2000-4000 rupees for 100 ml! Ylang ylang is a rich essential oil used in high-end perfumery and aromatherapy. There are 5 grades of oil namely, extra, first, second, third and complete collected at different stages of distillation based on the density and chemical components. The superior extra grade has higher ester content contributing to a sweet floral odour and is used in perfumery. In 1921, during the launch of Chanel No.5 having ylang ylang, jasmine and rose notes, Coco Chanel, the visionary businesswoman quipped - it's a woman's perfume with a woman scent.

The demand for ylang ylang oil is ascending in the market as it is a natural product.

Ylang ylang oil as a component of the Victorian era macassar oil, is an effective hair conditioner in treating dry skin of the scalp. The lower grades rich in sesquiterpenes are used in preparation of soaps and shower gels. As an aphrodisiac, anti depressive, anti inflammatory and in relieving high blood pressure ylang ylang oil has medicinal properties as well. India is both an importer and exporter of oil.  France dominates import of ylang ylang oil from all countries of origin. Annual global import demand was 100 tonnes, of which Comoros island constituted 50 tonnes in 2012, according to the International Trade Centre (ITC) report.

The demand for ylang ylang oil is ascending in the market as it is a natural product. But here is a caveat, as the tree grows faster with long tap roots even in disturbed land areas utilising the available sunlight and nutrients, care is needed not to promote propagating them in agricultural units. Seeds are dispersed far and wide by squirrels, bats, monkeys and such wildlife. As per the invasive species compendium by CABI, though the tree is not yet under the status of invasive species, in introduced areas like Comoros islands it has the potential for negative environmental impact which should be addressed scientifically. Hence 'Hakuna matata' (no problems in Swahili) hopefully remains the catchphrase for the bright future of the multi million dollar ylang ylang oil industry.

(Dr.Yamuna S is Assistant Editor, Keralakarshakan, Farm Information Bureau)

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