Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata), a member of the Anonaceae family, is a tall tropical tree which can grow up to 20 meters high. It is native to the Moluccas and the Philippines. In about 1770 the trees were introduced to Reunion Island and at the beginning of the 1900’s intensive cultivation of the tree began in Madagascar and then the Comoros Islands. The name is thought to derive from a local Philippine dialect “Alang- ilang” which means “fluttering” or “hanging”. This describes the large, drooping, fragrant flowers which tremble in the slightest wind. The Ylang Ylang tree thrives in a moist, tropical climate, at sea level, near the coast and in rich volcanic or fertile sandy soil. If left to itself it can grow up to 20 meters high, however in order to make the collection of the flowers easier it is often kept to a height of only about 2 – 3 meters. This is done by topping and bending down of the branches. When the flower first blooms it has a greenish white colour however when the flower is fully mature (about 20 days after blossoming) it has a deep yellow colour. This is the time that the oil contained in the flower is at its maximum level and highest quality.
As the ylang ylang tree bears flowers throughout the year, harvesting of the flowers continues year round, however, the principal harvest is from April to June, right after the rainy season. A moderate harvest takes place from the end of September to November (Spring Harvest). The flowers are drier and contain more essential oil than during the rainy season. During January to March (the heavy rainy season) the flowers are heavy with moisture and weigh more than they do during the rest of the year. The yield of oil at this time is much less. The essential oil content is highest during the night therefore the flowers are harvested early in the morning just after sunrise up to about 9 or 10 am. Only fully developed, yellow flowers should be gathered and great care must be taken not to crush the flowers during picking as damaged flowers will quickly fade, turn black and could cause fermentation of the whole basket. Distillation of the flowers will take place as soon as possible after the harvest. The best quality oil is obtained by placing the flowers in hot water rather than heating the water with the flowers in it. Each tree will yield an average of 10 kg of flowers, while the yield of oil varies between 1 – 2.25%. Distillation of the ylang ylang flowers is actually a fractionation by steam with various grades being taken off at different stages of the distillation. There is a gradual lowering of the odour quality between the first fraction (mainly esters and ethers) to the last fraction (mainly sesquiterpenes). Most distillers will cut their fractions by distillation time. The first fraction is called “extra”. This fraction is the one used exclusively by the high quality perfume industry and is generally taken off after 1 hour into the distillation process, followed by “first” taken after another 3 hours, “second” taken after another 5 – 6 hours and finally “third” taken after another 9 – 10 hours. Total distillation time is around 20 hours. One can occasionally find a “complete” oil which is either the result of a continuous 15 hour distillation with no fractions being removed (this is very rare) or a blending of fractions together. As “extra” is so much in demand by the perfume industry it is unlikely that it would be included in the blending to form the “complete”. The most common blends would be “first” and “second” or “second” and “third”. With the latter being cheaper. For high-grade perfumery only the “Extra” is used. “First” and Second” grades are used in cosmetics while “third” is suitable for scenting soaps. For aromatherapy purposes one would use the higher grades, as they are higher in esters they would have more relaxant and anti-depressant properties, while some aromatherapists prefer to use the “complete” oil.
The colour of the oil will vary from yellow brown to almost clear. The darker the oil the more sensitive it is to light and exposure to light can cause the oil to turn brown and lose it odour rapidly. Ylang Ylang has a heavy, sweet, exotic, floral aroma and is sometimes called the “poor man’s jasmine”. On its own it makes an intriguing perfume. It blends well with bergamot, geranium, grapefruit, jasmine, lavender, lime, neroli, patchouli, rose, rosemary, rosewood, sandalwood, sweet orange, tangerine and vetiver.
Psychologically ylang ylang has anti-depressant, aphrodisiac and sedative properties, which is why is often considered for use with depression, frigidity, impotence, insomnia, nervous tension and stress related problems.
On the physiological level ylang ylang has antiseptic, antispasmodic and nervine properties. Ylang Ylang is thought to have a balancing effect on sebum therefore it is helpful on both dry and oil skins. It is also used as a scalp oil to promote healthy hair. It can be effective when dealing with PMS and palpitations and can slow fast breathing and be relaxing to the Central Nervous System.
Traditionally ylang ylang has been used to create high class perfumes. In parts of Indonesia it has been a tradition to spread the flowers on the bed of a newly-wed couple on their wedding night. It has also been used in a number of hair and scalp tonics.
Contraindications: Generally considered non-toxic, non-irritating and non-sensitizing, however use with caution as excessive use may lead to headaches and nausea.
Ernest Guenther, The Essential Oils, Vol. 5 Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, FL, 1952
John Kerr, Essential Oil Profile, Ylang Ylang, Aromatherapy Today, Vol 4 December 1997
Robert Tisserand and Tony Balacs, Essential Oil Safety, Churchill Livingstone, London, 1995.
Martin Watt, Plant Aromatics Set 4, Effects on the skin of aromatic extracts, London, 1995.
Beverley Hawkins, Aromatherapy 101 Course Notes & Aromatherapy 201 Course Notes, 1999.