Friday, April 27, 2012

It's Ylang-ylang season!

We've been making quick trips to our hometown San Narciso in Zambales recently, and we've been picking the yellow ylang-ylang flowers from the low-lying branches of the Floresca tree near the town plaza, putting some in the side pocket of our backpack for the refreshing scent to accompany us during the four-hour bus ride back to Manila, and carrying a bagful of them to deodorize the air around the house in the city.

We can't help being most nostalgic of the ylang-ylang blossoms from a mighty tall tree by the foot of the stairs of the big house of the Valdez family for the junior-senior prom and graduation day garlands during our happy high school days at the Zambales Academy, which the Valdezes owned.  A beautiful young lady lived there, our classmate Aida, granddaughter of the patriarch Felixberto; and that's why we had free access to the flowers, although it wasn’t easy gathering them.

That tree might have already been old during our teens; it would take more than three pairs of hands to spread around and embrace the huge trunk. We thought then that it was the only ylang-ilang tree in the whole town.

The Valdez house is now sadly ravaged by time and the elements, its majesty all gone. Alas, only the memory of the tree remains.

All these came to mind when we chanced upon the ylang-ylang of more than a century ago, in the September 1872 issue of The Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science and Art, which informs that ‘six or eight years ago [c1866] a new perfume, in the shape of a "handkerchief extract," was introduced [in the United States] from England, bearing the curious name of Ylang-ylang, or, as perhaps more properly spelled, Ihlang-ihlang.’   

At the earliest then, the scent wafted on American air in 1864 a few years ahead of the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where “M. Rimmel exhibited the ihlang-ihlang flower preserved in glycerine ... a veritable flower, produced by a large tree known to botanists as the Unona odoratissima. This tree is a native of Malaisia [sic][Malaya?], or the islands of the Indian Archipelago.  Ihlang-ihlang is a native name, signifying the ‘flower of flowers.’”

Literature attaches another meaning to ilang-ilang - ‘‘wilderness.”  Supposedly from names of Philippine origin, the ‘flower of flowers’ comes from alang-alang or alanguilan, and the second from a Tagalog word, which we are more inclined to accept, since ‘ilang’ is the familiar term for far, unreachable places.  Ilang-ilang happens to be the Indonesian term for ‘loosely hanging,’ which aptly describes the flowers too.

Accounts say that the first information about the tree came from the English botanist John Ray (1628-1705) who gave it the name ‘Arbor Saguisan,’ said to be what it was called in Lu├žon [Luzon?]. Other botanists gave Ylang-ylang different appellations - Bonga cananga, Canang odorant, Uvaria odorata, Unona odorata, and Unona odoratissima - which finally evolved into the preferred name Cananga odorata.  In his Notes on Cananga Oil, or Ylang-ylang Oil in the March 1881 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy, Prof. F.A. Fluckiger attributed the superlative odoratissima to Fr. Francis Manuel Blanco, OSA, who described the intense perfume to cause headaches in a closed sleeping apartment. Fr. Blanco wrote the popular book Flora de Manila around 1880.  

Left, illustration from Blanco's Flores de Manila (c1880); Right, from Blume's Flora Javae (1881),

Nobody knows for sure where the plant originated. The contention is that it originated from the Philippines and found habitat ‘in Indonesia, Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia,’ which means it has spread out worldwide.  In 1797, the plant was brought from Sumatra to India, in the botanical garden of Calcutta.  Captain d'Etcherouy of France brought the ylang ylang to Reunion in 1770. At around that time too, the plant reached Madagascar particularly Nosi-be and the Comoros islands. 

Today, there are large plantations in the Mayotte island between Madagascar and Mozambique for the production of ylang-ylang oil, a vital base ingredient in the scent industry. 

The Appleton’s Journal had this to say about the beginning of the ylang-ylang oil industry  –

"The flowers were first distilled by a chemist at Manila, and yielded an ottar [sic][attar?], or essential oil, representing their delightful odor in a state of great concentration. This ottar was exhibited, probably for the first time in Europe, at the Exposition of 1867.

"Ottar of ihlang-ihlang is now largely distilled at Manila and at Singapore. It is a yellow liquid, not quite as heavy as water, and possesses, as before noted, the characteristic fragrance of the flower. It is very costly, being valued even higher than the precious ottar of roses. The wholesale price of oil of ihlang-ihlang is, at present, in the London market, about two pounds per ounce, and in this country fifteen dollars, or at the rate of two hundred and forty dollars per pound."

The chemist could be that sailor stranded in Manila in 1860, one Albert Schwenger, who operated a mobile still. The large consignments to Paris and London by 1864, wrote Fluckiger, were from Manila ‘where German pharmacists occupied themselves with the distillation of the oil.’ By 1900, the Philippines had a monopoly on the ylang-ylang oil production but the First World War put an end to it; Europe, the biggest market, was paralyzed by war. Botica Boie produced and exported it as Manila oil, believed to be the finest of oils produced here.

In 1923, Coco Chanel and her business partner Ernest Beaux, introduced Chanel N°5, which had ylang-ylang oil as the base ingredient. It became very popular, and millions of bottles have been sold since then.  After that, so many other perfumes with an ylang-ylang base were produced. 

Perfumes and colognes with ylang-ylang as of 2009.
There's one that carries the flower in its label, Amarige Ylang Ylang de Mayotte 2006, in the Givenchy collection of 2007, the oil base reported to have come from the best harvest of the Mayotte islands plantations in 2006.

There had been government encouragements to revive the ylang-ylang oil industry.  In fact, the local government of Anao, Tarlac began transforming their town into "Ylang-Ylang Country" in 1989, and their One Town One Product initiative of 2003 was geared to produce the valuable extract sought by the local manufacturers of scented products like perfumes, aromatic soaps, shampoos, lotions, and even candles.

We know that herbalists have also introduced ylang-ylang tea into the market.

Reports say that French fashion house Yves St. Laurent was importing ylang-ylang flowers from the Philippines for more than twenty years, then brought the plant to America, set up plantations, and secured a patent for its perfume formula based on the ylang-ylang oil. 

Our favorite flower children in the neighborhood gasoline station do not know YSL and his ylang-ylang scented perfumes.  Suffice to say that we're happy with the thought that when we buy those sampaguita leis with a bunch of dangling fresh and sweet yellow ylang-ylang flowers they will be able to buy something to put on their table for a late supper with their siblings.

Author unknown.  (1872, September 7).  Ylang-ylang.  Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science and Art. 53(180), 273 Retrieved from Making of America Journal Articles at

Chanel Offial Site. History of No. 5. Retrieved from 

Fluckiger, F.A.  (1881, March).  Notes on Cananga Oil. Or Ylang-Ylang Oil.  American Journal of Pharmacy.  53(3), 6-8.  Retrieved from 

Market Manila. Ilang-ilang / Perfume Tree Flowers.  Retrieved from 

Region III: Tarlac / Ylang Ylang oil of Anao. Retrieved from 

Sun on Petals of Ylang Ylang. Fragrantica. Retrieved from and 

Tabb. W.K.  (2000, January).  The World Trade Organization? Stop World Takeover. Monthly Review.  Retrieved from 

Ylang- Ylang "Flower of Flowers".  Article published in the Aromatherapy Times. (Vol. 1 No 61) - International Federation of Aroma-therapists Professional magazine - Retrieved from Nicole Perez School of Holistic Aromatherapy at

Historical pictures from:   

Blume. (1881, Mar). Flora Javae. American Journal of Pharmacy. 53(3). 

Blanco, F.M. OSA. (c1880.). Plate 221, Flora de Manila. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia/wiki/ Cananga_odorata_Blanco1.221.png

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