Ylang- Ylang "Flower of Flowers"

Article published in the Aromatherapy Times. (Vol. 1 No 61) - International Federation of Aromatherapists Professional magazine - www.ifaroma.org

Ylang-Ylang (Cananga odorata) is a tropical tree belonging to the Annonaceae botanical family, which originates from the Philippines. Its name, ylang-ylang, derives from the native language of the Philippines where it is known as alang-alang which means ‘Flowers of flowers’.

Ylang-ylang flowers are renowned for their pleasant suave odour reminiscent of Narcissus and different trees may produce yellow, white or mauve flowers.

The first information on Ylang-ylang goes back to John Ray, English botanist (1628-1705) who described the tree under the name Arbor saguisen, ylang-ylang has also been recorded by other explorers under the names of Borga cananga and Unona odorata.

It would seem that the first commercial production of ylang ylang oil by distillation is down to a sailor stranded in Manilla, one Albert Schwenger in 1860, who operated a mobile still. By 1900, the Philippines still had a monopoly on ylang ylang oil production but the coming of the First World War decimated the Philippines industry. The leader of a French plant expedition, Captain d'Etcherouy, had previously taken a number of spice plants including ylang ylang to Reunion in 1770, but up to 1885 ylang ylang was largely used as an ornamental tree and it wasn't until 1892 that large scale planting of ylang ylang was carried out in Reunion, peaking in 1905/1906. At around the same time, ylang was introduced into Madagascar, particularly the island of Nosi-be, and the Comoros islands.

Indigenous Indonesian peoples macerate Ylang-ylang flowers in coconut oil and used it for general skincare, treatment of the scalp, counter fevers, cutaneous eruptions and to reduce itchiness from stings and bites. A lotion called Bori-bori was made from the maceration of Ylang-Ylang flowers in curcuma or coconut oil and was used to friction the body during the cold and rainy season to prevent fevers.

The Victorians used ylang ylang (or cananga oil) to scent in hairdressing oils (macassar oil) and "anti-macassars" were embroidered pieces of linen put on the upper parts of armchairs to prevent hair oil staining the upholstery fabric. It is not to be confused with Macassar oil from Schleichera trijuga a buttery-yellow oil smelling of almonds also used in hair formulations in Indonesia, also popular with Victorians who believed it to be active against scurf and dandruff.

Ylang Ylang oils with their radiant, heady, rich exotic floral odours tinged with a medicinal aspect, are produced via the water-, or water and steam distillation of the freshly picked blossoms of Cananga odorata subsp. genuina growing in N. Madagascar (Nosi-be) or in the Comoros Islands (Anjouan and Mayotte). Do not confuse with Cananga oil, a more medicinal & less florally odoured oil, which is produced in Java from Cananga odorata subsp macrophylla.

1000 Kg of picked ylang ylang flowers may produce some 20Kg of oil, and various grades of essential oil are available Extra, First, Second, Third and also occasionally Extra superior, Tails and Complete. Best selling grades are Extra (for fine perfumery) and Third, the perfumery demand for Third being greatest. The grades are obtained at progressively longer distillation times, but in order that the supplier is not left with large amounts of unsold higher and more expensive grades, grades are previously determined on the basis of density limits, to fulfil existing forward orders. It has been the case where Third grade can only be ordered if an equal quantity of Extra is ordered at the same time.

The Extra grade of ylang ylang oil contains oxygenated compounds such as para-cresyl methyl ether (15-20%), methyl benzoate (5%), laevo-linalol (9-14%) benzyl acetate (to 25%) and geranyl acetate (to 10%) as well as up to 35% total sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, such as germacrene D. Third grade contains lower amounts of oxygenated materials and up to 75% sesquiterpene hydrocarbons.

Tony Burfield is persuaded that true “complete” ylang-ylang oils – often sought after in Aromatherapy - may be obtained from the Philippines and China, but after talking to distillation operatives, that “complete oil” from Commores is generally a mixture of First and Third qualities.

Since major aroma interests have taken over in Commores/Madasgascar it will come as no surprise for you to be told that adulteration is carried out by reconstituting or partially reconstituting the oil formula with synthetic p-cresyl methyl ether, benzyl acetate, methyl benzoate, linalol, cinnamyl acetate, isoeugenol, cedarwood oil (based on the fact that cedrol has been reported previously to be a constituent of the oil), benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate, farnesyl acetate, etc. etc The oil often tends to end up rather over-sweet and estery, and/or over cresylic.

Ylang ylang has also been the subject of controversy. According to Tabb (2000) "…the rights of corporations now include what is called biopiracy: stealing genetic materials and traditional knowledge from indigenous communities and patenting them. Such intellectual theft has become increasingly prevalent. Yves St. Laurent, after importing a particular flower (Cananga odorata or, as it is known in the Philippines, where it is grown, ilang-ilang), set up its own plantations in Africa and secured a patent on the perfume derived from the native Filipino species." ref Tabb WK (2000) "The World Trade Organisation: Stop World Takeover " Monthly Review 1/1/2000.

I found that Ylang-Ylang had the following effects or properties on people:

  • It reduces acute anxiety, decreases fear and body stress and generally gives a feeling of warmth, comfort and protection.
  • It reduces excessive menstrual flow and regulates women’s monthly cycle.
  • Its action regulates the cardiac rhythm and can slow down heartbeats (very useful for panic attacks and irregular heartbeats).
  • It has hypotensive properties (has been used successfully with high blood pressure sufferers).
  • It calms the hyper-excitability of many reflexes (acts as an antispasmodic and helps with body cramps and spasmodic coughs).
  • It has strong antiseptic properties and is particularly used for pulmonary and urinary infections (chest infections, bronchitis)
  • It is well known for its alleged aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant properties, it is often used to help treat impotence and frigidity.

(The above is an account of the therapeutic effects of Ylang-ylang oil Extra Reunion by N. Perez (previously unpublished information) 2004.

 

Copyright © Nicole Perez 2004
With contributions from Tony Burfield

 

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