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  • Building BlocksDecoding Obscure NotesYlang Ylang

Flower of Flowers

ylang ylang flowers, originally uploaded by chotda.
Background and Origin of Ylang Ylang:
Ylang Ylang is an evergreen tropical tree, remotely related to the Magnolia family (they are both from the Magnoliales order), native to Indonesia and possibly also the Philipines. It grows wild in many tropical countries, and is cultivated for its essences mostly in Nossi-Be, the Comoro Islands, which produce about 80% of the worlds’ production Madagascar and to a lesser extend in the Phillipines, Indonesia, Zanzibar, Madagascar and a few of the French South Pacific islands.

The trees grow very fast, and therefore they are pruned in such a way that they start growing horizontally after they reach 7 feet in height. This way, the blossoms can be easily picked by hand. The flowers are green at first, and have little or no scent, and only start to develop their intense aroma when they are fully mature and have turned yellow in colour (some varieties are mauve or pinkish, but their aroma is considered inferior to that of the yellow variety).

The essence of Ylang Ylang is unusual amongst the florals, because it has an extremely high yield and therefore has a much lower price than any other floral essence. The flowers are most commonly steam distilled, and to a lesser extent are solvent extracted to produce an absolute. The trees bloom all year around, which further contributes to the relative abundance of this oil in comparison to other floral essences.

The scent of Ylang Ylang is considered an aphrodisiac. The flowers are spread on the bed of newly wed couples in Indonesia, and are used to adorn the hair and in lays with jasmine sambac flowers (Sampaquita) in the Philippines.

Aromatherapy uses of Ylang Ylang:
Ylang ylang is considered to have aphrodisiac, euphoric, anti-depressant, and stimulant effects on the nervous system. It is recommended to use for conditions such as depression frigidity, nervous tension, and is generally considered an elevating yet soothing aroma.
Hair: Rinsing the hair with Ylang Ylang encourages the hair’s growth
Skin: Acne, irritated & oily skin, insects bites and general skin care
Circulation: Helps to regulate high blood pressure

My Experience with Ylang Ylang:
Ylang Ylang essential oils vary tremendously in quality and character. A good quality Ylang Ylang essential oil should smell creamy, fruity, tenacious, and headily floral but in a very pleasant way. A poor quality ylang ylang can be so terrible it can give a bad reputation to the essence altogether. My first impression of Ylang Ylang was terrible, because I was first introduced to a very poor quality oil. Even though it was graded an “Extra”, it had an unbrearably unpleasant odour that was sharp, heady and almost peppery-dry. This is not how ylang yang is supposed to smell like! Once I explored different oils from different suppliers, I discovered that I actually like this essence a lot. Enough to make an entire perfume dedicated to it – a Ylang Ylang soliflore!

The Ylang Ylang essences I work with now are many and vary, but they all have a very distinguished, soft, exotic, sweet, full-bodied aroma. Some are more heady than others, but they are all so beautiful. Even though Ylang Ylang is yellow in colour, I consider it to be a "white floral". Yet, my association with it are quite colourful - tropical fruit such as mango and pitango, creamy coconut, lays of flowers, and the many colours of corals - orange, red and pink hues... Besides my new Ylang Ylang soliflore, Coralle, I also used fair amounts of Ylang Ylang in White Potion and Tamya, where it plays a key role in the composition (coupled with tuberose in the first and jasmine sambac in the latter); and lesser amounts in Viola (an excellent example of Ylang Ylang's bouqueting abilities) and Autumn. (a Chypre to which the Ylang Ylang adds a fruity nuance)

Ylang Ylang Essences and Grades:
Ylang Ylang essential oil is distilled into several different grades, which are collected in several stages during the distillation:

Ylang Ylang Extra – Contains almost half of the yield of Ylang Ylang. This grade is characterized by a tenacious, sweet, balsamic, fruity odour. It is the most similar to the absolute, but with a lighter, airy opening reminiscent of lilacs, lilies and linalol. Upon drydown it can even be a tad soapy.

Ylang Ylang 1 - I have yet to encounter this grade (or fraction) of ylang ylang as it is most commontly found blended with Ylang Ylang 2 to form the so-called "Ylang Ylang Complete" (see below).

Ylang Ylang 2 - I have encountered only one specimen of Ylang Ylang 2 from a reputable supplier that sells high quality and organically grown oils for aroma therapeutic purposes. This particular specimen is good enough to pass as an "extra" until you hit the dryout and some sharp, slightly green and almost horseradish-like notes appear.

Ylang Ylang 3 – The third and last portion of the distillation. This grade is suave and sweet and full bodied. It also reveals some of the more woody aspects of this complex raw material.

Ylang Ylang Complete – this is suppose to be a mixture of all the four other grades, or an unfractioned distillation of the ylang ylang in its entirety. However, nowadays a Ylang Ylang complete is most likely to be composed of the less desireable grades – Ylang Ylang 1 and Ylang Ylang 2. Because of the unpopularity of these two middle grades (1 & 2), there is, unfortunately, frequent adulteration of Ylang Ylang essential oils by the different grades – either “upgrading” or “downgrading” them (i.e.: mixing the Ylang Ylang 2 with Ylang Ylang 3, to lable it a “Ylang Ylang 3” and the Ylang Ylang 1 with the Ylang Ylang Extra to label it an “Extra”).

Ylang Ylang Concrete is produced by solvent extraction of the flowers. This is an unusual, hard to find floral concrete, and well worth it if you can find it. It is ever so smooth, creamy, sweet, tenacious and warm. It has a unique fruity and creamy nuances, reminiscent of bananas. Unlike most concretes, which are waxy or semi-solid due to the content of floral waxes, ylang ylang concrete is completely liquid, deep amber coloured, with what seems like little waxy particles floating in it.

Ylang Ylang Absolute is obtained by alcohol washing of the concrete. Again, the yield is extremely high (75-82% of the concrete). It is similar in appearance to the concrete, less the waxy particles, although I have encountered some specimens with an olive green colour. It is similar to the ylang ylang extra, only deeper, richer, sweeter, and with less “top notes”. It is more spicy and fruity, presenting the eugenol and cinnamyl acetate; with fruity notes suggesting banana and mango; and animalic-jasminey-like tonalities as well as creamy buttery qualities. But most notably, it feels like a perfume on its own right, with layers upon layers of silky depth and warmth.

Ylang Ylang's Role in Perfumery:
The importance of Ylang Ylang essences to perfumery is tremendous. It blends well with almost everything, and has a particular importance in almost all floral bouquets and compounds, including: hyacinth, lily of the valley, violet, sweet pea, narcissus, lily, gardenia and many, many more. It blends particularly well with jasmine, rose, vetiver, peru balsam, sandalwood, cassie, vanilla, citrus notes and rosewood. It also plays an important role in oriental compositions, lending a sweet, warm, soft bridge between the heavy bases and the spicy top notes. Ylang Ylang is often used in soap bases, and you may be interested to know it plays a key role in perfuming face powders!

Principal constituents of Ylang Ylang:Benzyl acetate (25%)p-cresyl methyl ether (20%) – which is what gives ylang ylang its distinguished fragrance, though on it’s own it does not smell pleasant at all.
methyl benzoate
methyl salicylate
cinnamyl acetate

Perfumes with Prominent Ylang Ylang Notes:
Mahora (now called Mayotte)
No. 5
(to name only a few...)
A few words about the meaning of the name – up until very recently, I knew it meant “Flower of Flowers”. I now read that in Tagalog it is derived from the words “Wilderness” and “Rare”. If any of you, my dear readers, who is from the Phillipines, can enlighten me with the true meaning of this fantastic flower of your country – I would be most grateful.

Bibliography (besides the sites that are linked to on this article):
Stephen Arctander, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural OriginJulia Lawless, Encyclopedia of Essential OilJulia Lawless, Aromatherapy and the MindPoucher's Perfumes, Cosmetics & Soaps Volumes 1 & 2
  • Building BlocksDecoding Obscure NotesYlang Ylang
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