Sunday, January 8, 2012

Perfumery Material: Ylang Ylang/Cananga Odorata

"Poor man's jasmine" isn't quite the enthralling description, is it? And yet this is how Ylang-Ylang (pronounced "ee-LUNG-ee-LUNG") is affectionately refered to by perfumers, because the lowest grades of the oil are quite economical, especially for a flower essence. The inclusion of this naughty-looking yellow blossom in fragrances is legion to mention; contrary to what one might expect, not due to the lower costs, but due to its exquisite, heady, tropically sweet scent that is close to that of jasmine. Legendary perfumes such as Chamade by Guerlain, L'Air du temps by Nina Ricci, Patou's Sublime or Opium by Yves Saint Laurent are put on angel's wings thanks to this intoxicating blossom.

Botany & History
The botanical name Cananga Odorata is derived from the Malaysian word, “kenanga” which is the vernacular for the genus. The Genus Cananga has two species; only one of them is used in perfumery. Cananga odorata is the source of cananga and ylang-ylang oil and absolute while Cananga latifolia, which produces a functional oil, is also commercially used for other purposes.

The large, yellow-green, strongly scented flowers almost resemble tiny human parts, so it comes as no surprise that according to The Essential Oils Book by Colleen K. Dodt, ylang ylang:
“…. is believed to be antidepressant, aphrodisiac, sedative, calming, euphoric…It has been found effective in reducing sexual difficulties resulting from anxiety, stress, and depression.” Its effect is indeed exhilarating, introxicating, aphrodisiac!

Cananga odorata originated in South East Asia, discovered around 1740 in Malaysia by the French botanist Pierre Poivre, and it was introduced to the Comoros Islandes in 1909. It naturalized as far as Papua New Guinea, the  Pacific Islands and the Philipines; basically climates of humid warmth. It has also been introduced into tropical countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and even the Americas, specifically as an essential oil plant.

Production of Ylang Ylang Aromatic Essences
The essential oil of cananga odorata is produced via steam distillation, resulting in two distinct products: cananga oil for the soap and toiletries manufacturingand ylang ylang oil, typically available in variations of grades (there are five of them and another one is a blend of the first 3, with the Superior Extra grade from Mayotte island off Madagascar being reseved for high quality fine fragrances; this is the one that Guerlain harvests for their exclusive boutique scent Mayotte in Les Parisiennes line). Ylang-Ylang Absolute is also available for the discerning perfumer: Extracted via volatile solvents, washing with alcohol the concrete rendered from the ylang ylang petals.The absolute has an intesely sweet-floral odour with a typical balsamic floral note. It aids diffusion and lingers for hours.  Last but not least, there is an ylang-ylang CO2 essence, a quite expensive and fine product distilled by carbon dioxide; a certain amount of pressure is applied and then the gas changes to liquid ensuring the preserving of the flower's odour profile.

Ylang Ylang in Perfumery & its Key Role at Guerlain &Chanel
For all its atrributes, ylang ylang is a very frequent floral essence in fine fragrance perfumery and a constituent in Vanille Galante. It naturally encompasses salicylates and eugenol (a spicy ingredient); the former in the form of benzyl salicylate is the basic ingredient in the Ambre Solaire suntan lotion, with its white flowers tinge, which is synonymous with summer vacations to many Europeans (The ingredient first entered the composition for its sunscreening properties and later overstayed thanks to the fond reactions of users to its smell).This is why many ylang ylang dominant fragrances produce the association with suntan lotions: so many people have used a suntan lotion aromatized with salicylates/ylang ylang in their lives! (for more fragrance notes associations refer to The Vocabulary of Scent)

For all practical purposes the scent of ylang-ylang has been instrumental in more legendary fragrances than we're anticipating. Fine grade ylang ylang is making its presence known even more than jasmine does in the iterations of Chanel legendary No.5 (and is an intergral part of other Chanel classics such as No.22, Bois des Iles and Cuir de Russie). It is notably a signature trademark of most Guerlain fragrances, including many of the revered classics, such as Mitsouko and L'Heure Bleue. Guerlain indeed value so much the production of ylang-ylang in Mayotte that they bought 20% of the plantation of Combani. Jean Paul Guerlain personally inspected the hectares with ylang-ylang there in the years from 1995 to 2002. Vicious tongues eventually squealed on him using illegal workers to pick up the flowers (because the cost on Mayotte was very high compared to neighbouring islands labourers), resulting in him abandoning the plantation and choosing to operate in the neighbouring island of Anjouan from then on.

List of Fragrances Highlighting Ylang-Ylang Notes:
NB. This list features perfume with predominant ylang-ylang notes, there are of course hundreds of other fragrances listing it as a secondary note.The links below direct to reviews.
Annick Goutal Songes
Boucheron Boucheron Femme
Cacharel Loulou
Calvin Klein Escape
Caron Nocturnes
Chanel Bois des Iles
Chanel Coco Mademoiselle
Chanel No.5
Chanel No.5 Eau Premiere
Chloe Chloe (original, 1975)
Dior J'Adore Eau de Cologne Florale
Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds
Estee Lauder Beautiful
Givenchy Amarige
Givenchy Harvest Collection, Amarige Ylang-Ylang de Mayotte Harvest 2006
Givenchy Ysatis
Guerlain (discontinued) Aqua Allegoria Ylang & Vanille
Guerlain Chamade 
Guerlain Cologne du 68
Guerlain L'Instant de Guerlain
Guerlain Mahora/Mayotte
Guerlain Samsara
Guy Laroche Fidji
Grossmith Hasu-no Hana, Phul Nana, and Shem el Nessim
Hanae Mori Hanae Mori (i.e. "butterfly")
Hermes 24 Faubourg
Hermes Vanille Galante 
Jean Paul Gaultier Classique
Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles
Kenzo Jungle L'Elephant
Lanvin Arpege
Lancome Poeme
Laura Biagotti Venezia
Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps
Patou Sublime
Rochas Byzance
Teo Cabanel Alahine
Tom Ford Black Orchid
Tom Ford Black Orchid Voile de Fleur
Van Cleef & Arpels First

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Perfumery's Raw Aroma Materials

photo of ylang ylang via Flowers Eddie Tam Makawao, Maui December 24, 2006 via


  1. This has answered a lot of question for me, an ingredient common in things I have loved, Mitsukua, Chanel 22, Bal a Versaille, and Arpege. Many of the others are one friends of mine wore, so I never approached: L'Air du Temps, and Van Cleef & Arpel's First. I have been given that oil before, but I don't like single scents. I like a well designed fragrance. So you have really helped me define myself to myself. But I am a Bellogia Girl, too.

  2. are there any Masculine-Unisex fragrances with a prominent or even discernible ylang-ylang note?

  3. Heh, I don't like the name ylang-ylang so I use the nice Latin name when referring to the stuff. And now I learn that cananga is a different thing, oil-wise.

    I've been playing with ylang-ylang lately and it smells quite leathery to me. You'll get a sample of a woody-floral when I get myself to mail it.

    Anyhow, most of the fragrances you list positively don't appeal to me at all. Apparently, if the fragrance doesn't smell of wood shavings, tar, turpentine or other non-perfumey stuff, I fail to like it:D

  4. Eliam15:03

    Ylang Ylang is actually one of the first raw materials I experimented with when I started studying perfumery, so it holds a special place in my heart. It blends wonderfully with many raw materials and is so much more cost effective that other floral absolutes that it's no wonder why so many perfumes (even revered, high-end ones) make good use of it. Unfortunately, this is yet another ingredient the IFRA has placed restrictions on.

  5. N,

    that's great to hear! I find that delving into the raw materials often highlights aspects we didn't know were there when first playing with a scent. Please note that materials is not necessarily the same as given notes.

    From what you mention I peg you mainly as a rich aldehydics-leaning woman, which bodes well with your "non soliflore" (but rather floral bouquet) tastes. Bellodgia is pretty complex for a "soliflore", it's predominantly carnation, but the formula is made up from many different blossom notes as well.

  6. K,

    excellent question! :-)

    Masculines examples are fewer, due to the overly jasmine-heady quality of ylang ylang itself; I like to think of it as a mdifier in a masculine mix.
    Anthracite pour l'Homme by Jacomo is a good fragrance to seek/try; the aromatic elements are balanced by the floral heart.
    Unisex offering might include: Cologne du 68 (Guerlain), Hasu-no Hana, Phul Nana and Shem-el Nessim (all by Grossmith), L'Ombres d'Or Ambre (Mona di Orio), Seraphim (Ormonde Jayne) and maybe Alahine (Teo Cabanel) if you don't find it too feminine; the latter is especially rich in ylang ylang (and amber).

  7. L,

    there are different grades/quality standards for each product and that makes a difference; some are only for soaps/candles. ;-)

    The leathery facet is quite apt: the depth of the floral is such that it starts smelling pungent. And ylang and leather are perfect partners anyway.

    I'm the one who has tardied to send over your package. *Hanging head in shame*

  8. BTW, Liisa, do mail the perfumer about your missed sample. I forgot to say that and I should have had.

  9. E,

    it's an economical floral and therefore perfect to experiment with when first making batches. One isn't wasting as much $$ if a mistake happens.
    On the other hand, I do appreciate it on its own qualities just as much. It's quite delightful and very "pulling".

    The way IFRA is going I don't know what they'll ration next: perfumer's alcohol, maybe?

  10. Anonymous21:21

    One quick question...
    Can you purchase Ylang Ylang as it's own fregrance? I can't seem to find it anywhere if you can...

    Thank you

  11. Anonymous21:23

    Quick question...
    Can I buy Ylang Ylang as it's own fregerance?
    If so, where can I find it?

  12. Anon,

    you can find ylang essential oil almost in any good aromatherapy line at the chemist's (Apivita makes a good one), it's one of the essential oils that can be diluted in some jojoba oil to be worn as perfume by itself.
    You can try Enfleurage if you are in NYC or have access online.

    Hope that helps!

  13. Ylang ylang and Cananga are different, they are confused most of the time. Including me that live in Java , the place where the Cananga originated before knowing the difference. Cananga is having yellowish flower petal, it has sweeter smell and the tree are usually are huge. Ylang-ylang is having green petal and the smell is a little bitter note. Cananga is only best to known in Java in Blitar area, East Java. Which supply Cananga oil, Comorro or other places they supply Ylang-ylang.


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