Ylang-ylang means “flower of flowers”, and indeed, the fragrant yellow flowers of this exotic evergreen tree are highly prized for their essential oil, which is clear with a yellow tinge. A member of the cherimoya (custard apple) family, ylang-ylang is native to tropical lowland forests in areas ranging from India to northern Australia, and it is cultivated in the tropical areas of Africa and Asia.
Depending on where the tree is grown, the scent of ylang-ylang oil can vary substantially. As a result, commercially available ylang-ylang oils can have distinctly different aromas, from fresh and floral to sweet and slightly fruity.
Common Names: Ylang-Ylang
Description: Evergreen tree, up to 100 feet tall (50 to 60 feet when cultivated); drooping branches with long, oblong leaves; strongly scented yellow flowers; dark green oval fruits ripen to black
Hardiness: To Zone 10
Parts Used: Flowers and wood
Range/Habitat: Native to tropical lowland forests in areas ranging from India to northern Australia; cultivated in tropical areas of Africa and Asia
Ylang-ylang’s flowers and essential oil have sedative and antimicrobial properties. The oil also has a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Aromatherapists consider ylang-ylang to be one of the most relaxing fragrances for both mind and body. It is often combined with other oils—particularly bergamot, lemon, and sandalwood—and made into a massage oil or added to a bath to enhance relaxation.
Caution: Use the essential oil of ylang-ylang externally only. Also, use it lightly; the intensity of its scent may cause headache or nausea.
Ylang-ylang is widely used to scent cosmetics, soaps, candles, and perfumes. Along with rose and jasmine, it is reportedly one of three floral fragrances in the legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume. Its wood is used for house construction in the Pacific Islands, as well as for making cooking fires. The flowers can be woven together to make fragrant garlands and leis.
How to grow it
A tropical rainforest tree, ylang-ylang grows in well-drained, moist soil and full sun in areas of extreme humidity and minimum temperatures of 50° to 64°F. Established trees will tolerate occasional temperatures of 30° to 32°F, however. Because of these requirements, most North American gardeners cannot grow the standard species.
Dwarf ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata var. fruticosa) is a good choice for the home garden because it produces the same fragrant flowers as the species but, at 6 feet tall, can be grown in a pot that you can move indoors for winter. Add compost to the potting mix to help retain moisture and provide nutrients. Water regularly. To increase humidity, set the pot on a tray of pebbles, and mist the plant frequently.
From spring through summer, fertilize ylang-ylang monthly to encourage bloom, which will begin in 1 to 4 years. Ylang-ylang flowers are most fragrant at night during summer, when both temperatures and humidity are high. Harvest fully mature, deep yellow flowers (about 20 days after blossoming begins) in very early morning, when the essential oil content is highest.