With six fragrant petals that transition from greenish-yellow to deep yellow with bright pink centers when mature, the ylang ylang tree is highly fragrant in a purely tropical way. The tree is generally kept pruned to 10 ft for flower harvest but a mature, fully grown tree has long drooping branches that create a muted green chamber underneath. A warm, humid summer day releases a fragrance that is softly floral, uplifting, and yet slightly creamy. It’s pretty much heaven to be able to stand under one and just breathe.
Ylang ylang is one of the flowers that can be distilled, often in lower capacity stills with a small charge to avoid damaging flowers. Distillation may last up to 24 hours and results in different fractions: extra, ylang ylang I, ylang ylang II, ylang ylang III, or a full distillation results in ylang ylang complete. To produce the different fractions the distillation is stopped at various stages depending on specific gravity indicative of each fraction. Rather than conducting a full distillation, sometimes the complete is produced by combining the less popular first and second fractions. You will want to use a trusted vendor and check if your complete is associated with the letters VOP which stands for ‘very old process’ and indicates a single long distillation. The extra is the very first product that comes over in the distillation. There is also a ylang ylang absolute produced by solvent extraction.
Main producers of ylang ylang are Madagascar and the Comoros, most famously in Nosy Be. Much of the distillation occurs in small local units and is batched into larger amounts for sale, again depending on the specific gravity.
Worth noting, ylang ylang essential oil will be cloudy when diluted in 95% alcohol. If it’s not cloudy it’s not the real thing.
There are a few specific notes/feelings that describe ylang ylang in most of its variations: fresh, minty, very sweet and uplifting. The best, especially the extra and complete have a rich tropical fragrance. Most have a paper note which should be subdued throughout the dryout. This is also one of the few oils I regularly taste—touching the scent strip to my tongue to see if it has a ‘bite’. Taste a few really good ylang ylang oils and you’ll know what I mean.
Ylang ylang extra is sweet and floral, heady and fruity with a definite bite. There is the slight minty smell I associate with a good ylang ylang as well as a bit of a paper note. After testing a few, I find the paper note common to all but very slight in the better ones, keeping it in the background. The fresh and floral aroma continues through the heart and into the dryout.
Ylang ylang complete is really much like the extra but perhaps a bit less heady and floral. There is a definite wintergreen aspect, although it is kept in check. They seem to all have a stronger paper smell but I have one that has hints of tuberose and is nicely floral.
Ylang Ylang I is probably best described as a more subdued and less floral version of the extra and complete.
Ylang ylang III has a typical ylang ylang fragrance, is less strongly floral and rich. A good one still has a bite to it but tends to be woody and less complex. The drydown is simple and yet nice.
All of the distilled oils are a very pale yellow and very fluid. The absolute is a light green and also very fluid.
Before I talk about the absolute, I am going to use Arctander’s words; I love how he describes the absolute: “one of the most delightful floral absolutes is the one obtained by alcohol washing of the concrete from ylang ylang.” He goes on to say that it is “a pale yellow to straw yellow, oily liquid of intensely sweet-floral, very diffusive odor. With unusual power in its topnote, the fragrance fades out very slowly and most elegantly in a long-lasting, floral-spicy and very sweet note, truly reminiscent of the fragrance of the flower.” One final statement: “Ylang-ylang oil has been called ‘the poor man’s jasmine’, a nickname which the author strongly resents. He would rather call it ‘everybody’s ylang-ylang.”
There’s not much I can add except to say that the absolutes I have are more of a light green in color, definitely elegant and floral with slight fruit and spice notes, and a gorgeous fruity floral drydown.
Steffen Arctander Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin 1960. Reissued in 1994 by Allured Publishing Corporation, Carol Stream, Illinois, USA.
(www.traditionaltree.org, Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry, April 2006, ver. 2.1, Cananga odorata (ylang-ylang) by Harley I. Manner and Craig R. Elevitch.