The common name ylang ylang originates from the Philippine ‘alang-ilang’, meaning ‘ ‘flower of flowers’ – a description of the way in which the flowers flutter or hang in the breeze. It is sometimes called ’cheap man’s jasmine’ or ‘Crown of the East’ or ‘Perfume Tree’.
There are five grades of ylang ylang produced through fractional distillation of Cananga odorata var. Genuina: Ylang Ylang Extra, first, second, third and complete. The Complete is created by blending Extra with first and second grades. In the production of Ylang ylang, the first potion of the distillate is collected over 1 to 2 hours and is called ‘Extra’ and considered the most expensive and superior grade. The grades 1-3 are then collected at increasing intervals of time, the distillation being stopped each time with the oil removed. The operators of the stills use specific gravity and odour to grade the different qualities but since there are no agreed standards, the quality of a given grade varies from one producer to another.
A much cheaper essential oil of ‘cananga’ the macrophylla variety of Cananga odorate is sometimes sold as ylang ylang but its aroma is however harsher and less subtle.
Cananga oil is typically used in soap, candles and perfumes.
Also known as kadapgnam (Burmese), chhke sreng (Cambodia), kenanga (Javanese), chenanga (Malay).
Native to southeast Asia, the Phillippines and Indonesia, it is now cultivated in Madagascar, the Reunion and Comoro Islands.
The Ylang Ylang tree was first described as Arbor saguisen by the English explorer and botanist John Ray (1628-1705). Later on, other explorers named it Borga cananga and Unona odorata. Albert Schwenger was the first person to distil Ylang Ylang when he was stranded in Manilla with his mobile still in 1860. The French introduced Ylang Ylang to Reunion in 1770 as an ornamental tree, and by 1892 had undertaken large scale planting in Reunion, Madagascar and the Comoros islands.
Its fragrant flowers are often hidden in the hair of Malaysian and Indonesian women and strewn across the beds of newlyweds as well as used for decoration at festivals and celebrations along with jasmine, rose and champaca. Ylang ylang is used to fragrance linen and clothing in the home and in Thailand an infusion of ylang ylang is applied after bathing.
The traditional uses of Ylang Ylang are also medical: dried flowers being used in Java for malaria, and fresh petals against asthma. The leaves can be rubbed onto the skin or scalp to alleviate itching and the bark is useful for scurf. The seed used to be used externally to cure intermittent fever. In addition ylang ylang is used for soothing insect stings and bites, as well as general skincare where it is steeped in coconut oil to produce a fragrant pomade called boori-boori that is used as a body rub to prevent fever and infections in the rainy season as well as nourishing and rejuvenating the skin.
In Malaysia, Ylang Ylang can be seen on the road side where it is planted to provide shade and its beautiful scent carries in the night air.
The French chemists Garnier and Rechler recognised Ylang Ylang’s medicinal properties at the beginning of the twentieth century with their research on the island of Reunion where they found ylang ylang to be effective against malaria, typhus and infections of the intestinal tract as well as the calming effect on the heart.
The Victorians added Ylang Ylang in their Macassar hair oil to encourage hair growth and bring a glossy sheen to their hair. It can be used in your favourite shampoo or conditioner if you suffer from split ends.
Extremely powerful, Ylang Ylang is used in low concentration in a blend or as a fixative in perfumery and is often used instead of jasmine. Third grade Ylang and Cananga oil are used widely in men’s perfumes and toiletries.
Ylang Ylang grows well in hot humid conditions where there is an annual rainfall of 3000mm, an average annual temperature of 21-27 deg and an altitude up to 850m. It grows well on light, well-drained soils with pH 4.5-8, preferring rich volcanic or fertile sandy soils with enough depth to accommodate the long tap root.
A team lead by Dr T. Betts, neuropsychiatric consultant at the Queens Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, has demonstrated the useful use of essential oils and ylang ylang in particular in the treatment of epilepsy. Massage combined with specific essential oils such as ylang ylang, lavender, chamomile has proven to be very effective in reducing the frequency of seizures experienced by the volunteers of the experiment. Many patients know when a seizure is about to happen and know what triggers them. Sniffing a bottle of a particular essential oil is often enough to induce the deeply relaxing effect experienced during the massage sessions and stop the seizure from developing further.
Dr Betts also emphasises the difficulties of the treatment and the stress that can arise for the therapist involved with such unpredictable patients. This should only be attempted by experienced professionals.
Dr Betts' research is available on the internet. Google 'Aromatherapy and epilepsy' to bring it up.
PMS & Menopause
Women will find ylang ylang useful for PMS, insomnia, mood swings, heavy periods or cramping. It can be used by those experiencing heavy and or painful periods in a warming massage oil over the abdomen and lower back in a nourishing base of omega three rich evening primrose and nourishing macadamia.
Ylang Ylang is antiseptic and used traditionally for chest infections, bronchitis and spasmodic coughs. Usually we think of oils like tea tree/ravensara/eucalyptus etc when treating chest conditions so why not try a floral note for a change?
Balancing to the skin
In skincare, ylang can be used on different types of skin - sensitive, oily as well as dry mature due to its sebum balancing, skin renewing and moisture retention properties.
Ylang Ylang is nourishing and moisturising for dry dehydrated or irritated skin and restrains infections and clears Damp-Heat. It benefits oil skin conditions as it balances sebum production
Ylang can be used along with mandarin, lavender and chamomile in a children’s blend for insomnia, stress or hyper-activity. Try this in the bath in a base of Solubol or in a pre bed foot massage oil with Jojoba and Sunflower.
Ylang blends well with exotic oils such as vetiver, jasmine and patchouli and can be used for its aphrodisiac properties in a romantic blend.
A yin, cooling oil
In Chinese medicine, ylang ylang is seen as energetically cool and moist, making it a yin oil. It is associated with the Earth and Fire Elements.
Ylang Ylang can be used like jasmine where one needs to reunite our emotional and sensual needs. According to Gabriel Mojay: The aphrodisiac power of ylang ylang oil is inseparable both from its ability to relax and uplift, and from its voluptuous aroma. Indicated for impotence and frigidity, it may be used by people in whom, fear, anxiety and the urge to withdraw have subconsciously blocked their feelings of sexuality. Ylang helps to reunite our emotional and sensual natures, aspects of being that need to contain each other and blend. If not, the Heart and Mind (Shen) alienated from the tangible senses, easily become uprooted from the yin. Without the calm and stable residence of the moist yin-energy, restlessness and agitation may occur. Or emotions are unable to flow and tend to ‘dry up’ leading to isolation and depression. In either case, the Mind (Shen) loses its natural ability to express and experience both pleasure and joy. Instilling us with the sweetness of peaceful paradise-yet revealing the spice of a tropical sun – ylang ylang oil both soothes and entices, opens and centres us. It allows us to inwardly unify and so outwardly merge.