Ylang Ylang

Cananga odorata var. genuine vs. Cananga odorata var. macrophylla

Photograph of Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuine.)  Bright yellow flower that has six finger-like petals about the size of an adult hand, the photo includes some green foliage behind the flower.

Ylang Ylang, Cananga odorata var. genuine, this hardy fast-growing evergreen tropical tree produces a large six petal (finger-like) flower that is quite heavy and is highly fragrant.  Cananga trees can grow very tall however, they are typically maintained at about seven feet for manageability.

Image Description. Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuine): Bright yellow flower that has six finger-like petals about the size of an adult hand, the photo includes some green foliage behind the flower. 

Cananga odorata var. genuine (Ylang Ylang) is native to India, and parts of Indochina, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, with 80% of the world’s Ylang Ylang oil is produced in Madagascar and in the Comoro Islands. According to the Tagalog people, Ylang Ylang pronounced ilang ilang translates to wilderness.

Other common nicknames are; flower of flowers, poor man’s jasmine and the perfume tree.

The scent of Ylang Ylang is quite tenacious, ambery and floral with an undertone of buttery apricot and a little banana. It is considered an aphrodisiac and as a cultural practice in Indonesia, the flowers are spread across the bed of newly married couples.

Extraction and Aromatic Profile

Ylang Ylang essential oil (Ylang Ylang Oil) is obtained from the Cananga odorata var. genuine flowers via a four-fraction steam distillation process, which happens to be the most popular method for extracting essential oils from plant materials. Stopping and starting the extraction process produces several grades of Ylang Ylang Oil.

The first fraction known as ‘Extra’ is produced within the first 15 minutes of distillation.  Approximately one hour later, grade 1 is produced, following suit with the inferior grades 2 and 3 which are distilled for an additional 10 to 20 hours. All fractions are used in aromatherapy and by the perfume, soap and cosmetic industry with the pricier ‘Extra’ being sought after by high end perfume designers and is a key component in Channel No. 5 and Dior’s Diorissimo. It is also used extensively in heavy floral oriental type perfumes. ‘Extra’ contains a higher content of linalool and p-cresylmethyl ether the latter of which, also occurs in daffodils, lily and jasmine. P-cresylmethyl ether possesses a camphorours, powdery nutty aroma which is not that pleasing on its own, however it is, what gives Ylang Ylang oil its distinctive aroma. During each fraction these constituents fade and the heavier sesquiterpenes appear.

Another Ylang Ylang Oil occurs on the market which is referred to as Ylang Ylang ‘Complete’ – this is a blend of all 4 fractions.

The confusion between Ylang Ylang Oil and Cananga Oil

Cananga odorata var. macrophylla (Cananga Oil) is not the same as the Ylang Ylang oil which is commonly used in aromatherapy and perfumery. It's confusing because Cananga Oil lies within the same odorata species but macrophylla is of a lower botanical ranking. The extraction method used to obtain this oil is via hydro-distillation which is essentially boiling the plant material, followed by a steam process. This method produces a higher yield of oil than the direct steam process. Cananga Oil is not as fragrant as Ylang Ylang Oil and is considerably less expensive. Cananga Oil tends to be less floral, more woody and rather leathery.

From a traditional perspective (known as indigenous healing) Cananga Oil has been used by indigenous people for thousands of years in ointments for skin diseases.

Photo of a Victorian newspaper ad promoting the use of Rowland's Makassar Oil depicts a woman with a large volume of hair who is relaxing on a chais lounge while her hair is being groomed by another woman.  Both women are wearing Victorian styled dresses.  The print and style of the ad is very dated to the period.

During the late 1800’s a barber named Alexander Rowland invented Macassar oil, a mixture of coconut or palm oil and Cananga Oil claiming that his formula would encourage the growth of shiny, lustrous hair. It also served as a popular hair perfume to camouflage the scent of tobacco smoke and dirty hair. The formula became known as 'Macassar' Oil after the Indonesian port of Makassar, where the ingredients were sourced. This hair preparation became very popular among women as well – it was used so abundantly that cloths and decorative doilies were draped over the on the back of upholstered furniture to protect the surface from soaking up the oily solutions.  The historical use of this oil has been passed down through generations resulting in misconstrued information, when in fact there is no scientific evidence that neither Cananga Oil or Ylang Ylang essential oil promotes hair growth.

Visit: Macassar Oil. An oily puff for soft heads

Current Research

Some research indicates that undiluted Ylang Ylang Oil possesses some moderate activity against a variety of superficial fungal infection. However, what marketers fail to tell, is that the research simply resulted from in-vitro studies and shows no efficacy in-vivo.

For example, to indicate that Ylang Yang Oil could be used as a treatment to heal the skin or help with hair loss is simply misleading. Especially since at concentrations greater than 1% Ylang Ylang Oil can actually cause dermal sensitization and is known to further aggravate inflamed skin.

Positive psychological benefits

From accurate accounts Ylang Ylang Oil does show promising effects on the central nervous system. Strong concentrations via inhalation can act as a stimulant and when used in low concentrations it is also a relaxant. Therefore, from an aroma-therapeutic perspective, modern day aromatherapists and natural perfumists may claim (with good intention) that Ylang Ylang oil is a mind balancing aroma.

Using Ylang Ylang

As a professional aromatherapist and artisanal natural perfumer, my preference is to use Ylang Ylang Extra oil in low dilutions mixed with other essential oils and aromatic extracts to create unique aromatic potions that have positive psychological effects.

My advice to my followers, if you are making your own aroma-therapeutic blends with Ylang Ylang Oil, be mindful of its odour intensity, if you add too much it can dominate the composition and with some individuals the tenacious aroma can cause headaches.

Products that contain Ylang Ylang:


The information and statements on this site are intended for educational purposes only and not intended to prescribe, cure, prevent, treat or diagnose any disease or condition. None of the information herein has been evaluated by Health Canada or by the Federal Drug Administration.
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