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Ylang! Ylang!

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

The Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) tree is also known as the perfume tree, and with very good reason.

Worwood states that the heady, exotic scent could apparently be detected by sailors, approaching the tropical islands to the north and east of Madagascar upon which it is grown, so much so that they called these the ‘perfumed isles’.

There are three main stories told about Ylang ylang, one is how it got its name, one about how it got its flowers, and the other, its scent.

The first is a Filipino myth about a beautiful young girl named Ilang. Her parents wanted her to marry one of her many wealthy suitors, however she fell in love with a poor farm boy called Edo. Forbidden to see him, she eventually dies from yearning, and is buried at the stream where she and Edo had clandestinely met. A tree grew on her grave, with flowers carrying beautiful scent. When Edo died, he could be heard crying out her name “Ilang! Ilang!”. This is how the tree got its name.

And how did Ylang ylang get its flowers?

The tale is told that originally, Ylang ylang was just a tree, without any flowers at all. She desperately wanted to have flowers, and was jealous of, and teased by other trees and plants that did. One day a big storm was brewing, and she alone provided shelter to two worms, when no other tree would, being too worried about their flowers blowing away, and the worms eating their leaves. Ylang ylang welcomed the worms to eat her leaves as long as they wished. After the storm had passed, she looked for the worms, but was sad to find that it appeared they had been swept away. However, whilst sheltering in her tree, they had turned into beautiful butterflies, and upon hearing of this kindness, a goddess bestowed her with her hearts desire, the gift of beautifully scented flowers.

The third story is a folklore tale about how Ylang ylang came to have its unique scent. When the world was being created, the Goddess of Beauty was given the charge of giving flowers their scent, however there was not enough for every single flower. Determined to choose wisely, she asked many flowers what they would do if they had a beautiful fragrance. The ones that gave a selfless, kind answer received a beautiful scent (ie Rose, that said it would wish for the wind the carry the scent for everyone to smell – or Lotus, who would use the scent to spread the seed of kindness into every soul). Those that were selfish, like Hibiscus, who replied to the question that it would use the scent, coupled with its remarkable colour, to be better than all the other flowers, were rejected.

Finally, there was one fragrance left, and the goddess had not yet found a flower deserving of its most prized scent. Upon spying the flowers on the Ylang ylang tree, she asked what it would do if it had a beautiful scent. It answered that it would rather the goddess give the scent to the grass. The goddess was shocked, and asked why the tree would refuse such a gift. Ylang ylang answered that while she grew tall, she could still be equal to the other flowers, even without a fragrance. Yet the grass went unnoticed, walked on and flattened and ignored. It should have a beautiful fragrance to compensate for this. The god was so moved that it bestowed the scent to the deserving Ylang ylang tree, where it could spread love to all upon the earth.

There is clearly a theme of love, kindness and selflessness that weaves through each of these tales.

The flowers of the ylang ylang tree give off their strongest fragrance at night, to attract night-pollinating insects. Therefore they must be picked in the early hours of the morning to retain their fragrance, and very carefully handled and distilled in small batches only, so as not to ruin the delicate flowers.

Native to southeast Asian islands in the south Pacific ocean, the tree is also grown in the stunningly beautiful, tropical islands of Nosy Be, Comoro and Reunion. These islands of pure tropical paradise invoke the feeling of the heady scent of ylang ylang. Lavabre describes ylang ylang in wonderfully descriptive and evocative language, when he says “Supremely exotic, ylang ylang has the soothing, sedative, slightly euphoric, even lascivious quality of extreme fire and water, the luxurious laziness of tropical islands’.

It’s not hard to imagine swinging on a hammock, gently swinging in the beautiful, warm, ylang ylang-scented breeze.

(Tropical beach on Nosy Be)

Once used in the hair pomade Macassar (giving rise to the not-so-subtle antimacassar fabric placed over chairs to prevent the hair oil staining the upholstery), its scent was highly prized as an addition to exotic, floral perfumes.

It belongs to the Annonaceae family, the same family as custard apples, soursop and pawpaw. Lavabe says it is the ‘largest family in the Magnolia Order’, and that ‘it is one of the most primitive families of angiosperms (flowering plants) and can be considered a living fossil…the family exudes an exuberant creativity that allowed it to survive many mass extinctions and manifests in the production of its often gigantic and delicious fruits and the aromatic and medicinal substances in its bark, leaves and flowers’. Ylang’s finger-like, vibrant yellow flowers are certainly creative and exuberant.

Ylang's planet is Venus, which is named after the Roman goddess of beauty and love. As an essential oil from a flower, it has actions related to sexuality, sensuality and the reproductive system. Therefore, it is associated with the sacral chakra, as well as the heart chakra. The flowers are scattered on the beds of newlyweds, as it is considered an aphrodisiac.

Ylang is well known for its antidepressant actions and ability to help stabilise negative emotions such as irritability and anger. It is a ‘cooling’ oil, and, having an affinity for the reproductive system, in this way it is wonderful for heated emotions and mood swings associated with PMS. This balancing action extends to skincare, making it wonderful for oily and dry skin types.

It is soothing, calming, sedating, and brings us back into harmony when we are experiencing emotional instability. Holmes states that ‘it is particularly good for those with emotional instability and chronic unresolved anger’.

He sums up his description of Ylang ylang beautifully:

‘In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonising and lightening grace over the energetic Heart…in opening us up to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.’

REFERENCES PRECY ANZA 2019 Viewed 16/9/21

Battaglia, S. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 3rd Ed, Vol. 1, 2018. Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd. ERIC P GRANADA Viewed 16/9/21

Holmes, P. Aromatica, Volume 1. (2016) Singing Dragon. SHREYA SHARMA, 2017 Viewed 16/9/21

Worwood, V.A. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. 2016. New World Library.

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