YLANG-YLANG (Cananga odorata – Anonaceae)

The trees (Cananga odorata) from which the essential oil is distilled – known as perfume trees – originated in the Philippines and have now spread throughout tropical Asia. They were introduced to the island of Reunion in 1884, then to Madagascar, nearby Mayotte and Tahiti; they can be found in the wild in Malaysia, India and Indochina. The trees are generally small, but can reach a height of about 30 m (100 ft). The bark is smooth, with shallow cracks, and the branches ‘weep’ like willow. The leaves are large, oval and shiny, as much as 20 cm (8 in) long, with a slightly hairy underside. The flowers form in axillary clusters, greenish to start with, then, about 20 days later, they become yellow and very highly perfumed. These flowers appear constantly, but are more abundant in the rainy season. A many-seeded, greenish fruit succeeds the flowers.

Many varieties of the tree are cultivated for their essential oil, the ones bearing the smallest flowers producing the most subtle perfume. (Strangely, the flowers of the wild trees have little perfume.) A young tree of about 5 years old yields about 5 kg (11 lb) flowers; when it reaches the age of 10 years, it can give as much as 10-15 kg (22-33 lb). In 1979, the world production of ylang-ylang was 100 tonnes, 70 tonnes of which came from the Philippines, considered to be the best oil. Recently, however, exports have diminished due to neglect of the plantations and a shortage of combustible wood for the process of distillation. In addition, pure ylang-ylang has been replaced by an oil from another variety of Cananga, C. odorata var. macrophylla, which grows abundantly in Java. This gives an essential oil of inferior quality used in cheap perfumes and the soap and cosmetic industries. This oil, called cananga, is very much cheaper to buy than the expensive and subtly scented ylang-ylang.
John Ray (1628-1705), an English botanist, was the first to mention the tree, describing it as ‘Arbor sanguisant’; later it was called ‘Borga cananga’ and ‘Unona odorata’. In his Histoire naturelle des drogues simples (1866) Guibourt described the plant, and compared its scent to that of narcissus; he recorded an island recipe for a pommade made from the flowers of Cananga and those of Curcuma (turmeric) which the natives used as a body rub to prevent fever and contagion during the rainy season. In the islands, the natives also mixed the flowers with coconut oil to protect their hair from sea salt when they swam; called ‘borri-borri’, this mixture was also good for the health of the skin, and helped avoid the bites of snakes and insects. The essential oil of cananga later became part of the nineteenth-century hair oil known in Europe as Macassar.

A French physician, called Gal, looked into the therapeutic properties of the oil in 1873. Later, at the turn of the century, chemists Garnier and Rechler did some research in Reunion. They found the oil had a good result on malaria, typhus and other fevers. They recommended it as an antiseptic for intestinal infections, diarrhoea and flatulence. They recognized a regulatory heart action and a calming effect. Ylang-ylang has also been classified as a pulmonary and urinary system antiseptic, and a sexual stimulant, good in cases of frigidity. However, a story was reported fairly recently that a man suffering from impotence and knowing of ylang-ylang’s aphrodisiac reputation, actually swallowed 5 ml (1 tsp) of the oil. He had a heart attack and later died.


Description: Ylang-ylang oil is produced by the distillation of the fresh flowers, a process which has to be completed very quickly. The oil is very liquid, clear and has an extraordinary fragrance, with high notes of hyacinth and narcissus. The principal constituents: a.-pinene, benzoic acid, cadinene, caryophyllene, cresol, eugenol, isoeugenol, 5 – 7 per cent linalyl acetate, 8 -10 per cent linalyl benzoate and 30 – 32 per cent linalool, and geraniol.

Dangers: The oil is very often falsified with cocoa butter or coconut oil. To test, leave a sample in the freezer for a short while; if it has thickened and become cloudy, it is sure to have been adulterated. Sometimes the oil sold as ylang-ylang at a very inflated price is cananga. Unfortunately, because of the demand for ylang-ylang oil from the perfumery industry, particularly that of France, the distillers often ignore the use of the oil in therapy; if the oil is not of the very best quality, the therapeutic properties are of little value.


In illness
Because of its wonderful scent, I have found ylang-ylang particularly useful as a stimulant – (put 5 drops in a warm bath) and as a soother and relaxer. Nervous or emotional people who tend to get palpitations or suffer from low blood pressure, should carry the oil in a small bottle; when nervous, a few drops on a handkerchief, inhaled deeply for a few minutes, will have a very beneficial effect.

(See also sexual problems and stress.)

In beauty
Ylang-ylang in an oil which helps the skin to tan. Mix together in a 60ml brown bottle, 10 ml (2 tsp) coconut oil, 5 ml (1 tsp) wheatgerm oil, 45 ml (3 tbsp) almond oil and 10 drops pure ylang-ylang. Rub into the skin. Use only if you tan easily. Never over-expose yourself, and avoid the sun at midday (the best time for acquiring a good healthy tan is around 4 pm).

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