Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ilang-ilang - most popular perfume-bearing tree

Dr Abe V Rotor

 Top: full grown ilang ilang tree showing growing habit and inflorescence; middle, closeup of flowers
in immature and mature stages; ilang-ilang seedling; perfume extact and claims on the wonders of the tree.

The name ylang-ylang is derived from Tagalog, either from the word ilang, meaning "wilderness", alluding to its natural habitat, or the word ilang-ilan, meaning "rare", suggestive of its exceptionally delicate scent. A common mistranslation is "flower of flowers". The plant is native to the Philippines and Indonesia and is commonly grown in Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Comoros Islands. The fragrance of ylang-ylang is rich and deep with notes of rubber and custard, and bright with hints of jasmine and neroli. The essential oil of the flower is obtained through steam distillation of the flowers and separated into different grades (extra, 1, 2, or 3) according to when the distillates are obtained. The main aromatic components of ylang-ylang oil are benzyl acetate, linalool, p-cresyl methyl ether, and methyl benzoate, responsible for its characteristic odor. (Wikipedia)
Ilang-ilang comes in different names - anangilan (Cebu Bisaya), alangigan (Iloko), burak (Samar- Leyte) tangid or tangit (Bicol), danipo (Igorot), anangiran (Manobo). This tree which produces probably the most fragrant flower on earth is easy to identify.

The tree stands tall, reaching up to 20 meters, towering over houses and other trees and emerging through the forest canopy, its somewhat dropping branches bearing the weight of thick foliage and pendulous flower clusters that exude sweet smelling volatile oil which can be detected far and wide.

And yet the flower of the ilang-ilang is unassuming. It is green to yellowish green when mature, its petals thick, narrow and pointed and somewhat hairy, 4 to 6 cm long and 0.5 to 1 cm wide. The flowers hang in groups of three, six, to as many as twelve, each in different stages of development. As insects fertilize the newly opened flowers, the older ones lose their shriveled petals which fall like confetti still exuding the characteristic scent. Fruits are formed in place, arranged like a crown, green at first and turning black at maturity then fall off or picked by birds or bats.

The author believes this is how the ilang-ilang tree got into his home. A seed must have must have come from the nearby La Mesa watershed where a towering ilang-ilang tree is visible from his place. It is now ten years old and until recently, has surpassed the height of the trees around the neighborhood. Children love to gather its flowers with bamboo pole, and passersby look up to trace the source of its fragrance. Imagine how romantic it is to promenade under the tree at night - or just to sit down alone. On weekends the author would spend some time under the tree, enjoying the freshness of the surroundings with a cup of coffee. The flowers and foliage make a silhouette against the early sun, while some birds perched on its branches cheerfully break the misty cold air.

One Sunday morning a father and son came to gather some flowers. They are garland makers and the son had just finished high school.

“We make garlands for a living,” Ka Elias said,. “But it is a seasonal work. Sometimes we get orders for weddings and other special occasion like during graduation.” He explained as he climbed the tree and started gathering the flowers. Patrick gathered the harvested flowers and put them in a bag to keep them fresh.

Here is the economics of lei and garland making, according to Ka Elias. A simple lei is made of four or six beads of unopened flowers of sampaguita (Jasminium sambac), sewn with abaca string. Two or three flowers of ilang-ilang make the pendant. On the sidewalk a lei is sold for P3 to 5, depending on the size.

One tabo (quart can) of ilang-ilang can supply the pendants of forty to fifty leis. For garlands that cost P15 each, 20 to 30 ilang-ilang flowers are used. But the common garland is either made of all sampaguita flowers or a combination of sampaguita and ilang-ilang. Seldom are leis made  exclusively of ilang-ilang flowers, except on made-to-order.

Flower garland making is providing many households a means of livelihood like Ka Elias and family. Here the whole family is involved and that is why we see children selling garlands and leis on the sidewalk, around churches and to motorists. This is how many children earn money for their tuition fee and to help their parents.

Every week, the ilang-ilang tree at the author’s home yields four tabo of flowers on the average. Assuming that the value of the harvest is P200 if made into leis, that would make P800 a month, or P9600 a year – not bad from a single tree. This is possible because ilang-ilang blooms throughout the year. A farm planted to ilang-ilang, say 100 trees, could be very profitable indeed. During their most productive age, five years after planting to twenty or more, the trees could yield P960,000 worth of flowers a year. Fortunately ilang-ilang grows on any kind of soil as long as it is well drained and fairly fertile, making this tree suitable for reforestation of uplands, hillsides, and watersheds.

It was recorded by William H. Brown in his book, Useful Plants of the Philippines, that the Philippines was one of the few exporting countries in pre-war era of ilang-ilang oil which was used in making perfume. A popular brand then was Lily of the Valley. Oil extraction was done by distillation. Soon some countries learned the process and trade secret.

 The Department of Science and Technology has the technology to extract ilang-ilang oil as natural perfume and for the manufacture of cosmetics and soap. The department has also a technology package through PCARRD for the production of ilang-ilang, and other perfume-bearing plants which include sampaguita, camia and champaca. There is a great potential in the extraction of aromatic oils and in expanding the making garlands and leis into a popular industry specially because more and more people are going for natural perfumes.

There is more than just watching sunrise under an ilang-ilang tree, inhaling the fragrant air and listening to the songs of birds on it branches. The song, “Ilang-ilang ang pangarap ko…” rings a familiar tune.~

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