What's Blooming July 24-August 7: Ylang-Ylang Tree

Ylang-Ylang (Paw-Paw Family)
Cananga odorata (Annonaceae)
Origin: Indonesia, Malaysia

Possibly one of the most intoxicating fragrances in the world is the essential oil in the blooms of the Ylang-Ylang tree. Said to be the base for Chanel No. 5, the powerful scent is extracted via steam distillation from a very unassuming, greenish-yellow flower that grows on an equally unimpressive tree. Cananga odorata is a quick grower, increasing at a rate of about six feet per year until it reaches mature height of sixty feet or so; the form the tree takes can be quite unsightly. With long, pendulous branches that have a tendency to break, combined with a real intolerance for cold, the trees can get "ugly" if planted on their own in the open.

Our Cananga is in the middle parking lot, in between several native oak trees which help shelter it from the cold and wind. No one really notices it’s there until the blooms open. Once this happens you will see visitors to the Gardens wandering the parking lot and Palm Avenue, looking for the source of the wonderful smell. No one ever guesses where it’s coming from; the flowers are small, pendulous, and just barely a lighter green than the leaves. Mature flowers take on a yellow tinge just before falling off.

Cultivated Ylang-Ylang is often topped at ten feet to keep the flowers accessible, or cut down for harvest and allowed to regenerate, which happens quickly. There are Ylang-Ylang plantations throughout the Pacific tropics, as well as Madagascar. Almost all commercial production is for essential oil for the perfume industry. Margaret Mead noted that Samoan Islanders used the flowers as an aphrodisiac, and the blooms are traditionally strewn across the beds of newlyweds in Indonesia. It is this author’s favorite fragrant flower; just one bloom placed on a dish on the nightstand will fill a bedroom with intoxicating fragrance for three days. The tree blooms almost incessantly throughout our rainy season, and on and off the rest of the year.

 Text by David Troxell