Once upon a time, ylang ylang – a tendrilled tropical flower which blossoms on a tall tree – was known as ‘poor man’s jasmine’ (because it has many similarities, scent-wise). But not any more: this seriously exotic, intense, rich fragrance note is at the top of the price scale for ingredients – though even so, it’s still present in as much as 40% of quality perfume creations. Ylang ylang famously clambers round the heart of some of the most beloved fragrances in the world, including the best-known of all: Chanel No. 5. (The perfume’s creator is on record as saying that without ylang-ylang in the formula, he couldn’t have used such a high dose of the champagne-like aldehydes that give No. 5 its airy overture: it ‘tethers’ the creation). It’s generally recognised to be one of the more ‘aphrodisiac’, sensual note in the perfumer’s box of tricks. ‘It’s often used to surround jasmine, in white floral bouquets,’ notes perfumer Alienor Massenet. ‘It has an almost cinnamon quality, yet is very feminine.’
Ylang yang is also luscious, buttery, a little apricot-y and – when smelled ‘neat’ – is a tad medicinal, too. (In aromatherapy, it dispels tension.) The note is steam-distilled or solvent-extracted from the creamy flowers of the tall plant (Cananga odorata) – it can be either a tree or a vine, growing to almost 20 metres. Ylang ylang grows in the Phillipines, Java, Réunion and the Comoro Islands. Most of us are unlikely to smell it growing wild, but apparently it’s deliciously, delicately sweet, in flower form.
But why the high price? It takes around 400 kilos of flowers to produce one kilo of essential oil, and each tree provides around 10 kilos of flowers a year. Go figure.
PS Say it ‘ill-ang ill-ang’.
Smell ylang ylang in: