The Cananga Odorata tree is considered to be the true Chanel No.5 Perfume Tree. More often referred to by it’s common name, Ylang-Ylang…(pronounced “ee-lan ee-lan), it is among the most celebrated flowering trees in the World. Commonly found throughout Costa Rica, the Ylang Ylang tree is easily one of the most popular trees grown near or around “Tico” homes, as well as almost every Costa Rican Hotel or Resort in order to take advantage of its intoxicatingly rich floral fragrance.
A fast-growing tree of the custard-apple family, growth can exceed an amazing 6-8 ft per year, attaining an average height of around 40 ft or so, with heights of some 140ft! The Ylang Ylang is happy in full or partial sun, but prefers the acidic soil native to its normal rainforest climates, but is known to adapt quite well to other conditions. The long slender leaves are smooth and glossy, pointed with a prominent drip tip, offering subtle drooping yellow star shaped “flower” clusters that yield a highly fragrant essential oil. Specimens typically bloom two times a year, though mature specimens are known to bloom almost continuously throughout the year. Flowers are very fragrant, with a greenish yellow color at first, turning to a deep yellow to yellow brown when mature. Its clusters of black fruit are also important food items for birds, bats, monkeys, squirrels and other small mammals that frequent the rainforest readily dispersing this non-invasive species of tree. This tree is commonly planted around personal gardens, as well as most Costa Rica Hotels will plant these around their installations so visiting guests get treated to their intoxicatingly rich scent.
The ubiquitous Ylang Ylang tree offers multiple uses. The wood can be crafted or cut for canoe parts, small canoes, furniture, cooking fuel and cordage. The fragrant flowers are used to scent coconut oil, making lei and other decorative floral arrangements. The essential oil of the Ylang-Ylang is used extensively in aromatherapy, where it is believed to relieve high blood pressure, normalize sebum secretion (the secretions that regulate skin, hair and inhibit bacterial growth), improve symptoms of depression, distressed breathing, high blood pressure, anxiety, and is considered in many parts of the World to be an aphrodisiac. The oil derived from the Ylang-Ylang is widely used in perfumery for oriental and floral scented perfumes, the most famous being the wildly popular Chanel No. 5.
Ylang Ylang is also used as a common ingredient in the herbal motion sickness remedy, MotionEaze. The bark is used in some South Pacific Islands to treat stomach ailments and sometimes as a laxative. It is also used as an antiseptic on bites, stings and infections, as well as a sedative and as a reproductive tonic for infertility. The dried flowers are used against malaria, and the fresh flowers are pounded into a paste to treat asthma. (Please consult your doctor before trying any of these remedies!)
Native to Indo-Malaysia, this tree has been widely introduced by Polynesians, Micronesians, and early European explorers into most of the Pacific islands. It was later introduced to Tropical America (e.g., Costa Rica and surrounding countries), where the species has thrived. The Ylang-Ylang is now found from the Mariana Islands (Saipan, Rota, Guam), Nauru, Caroline Islands (Palau, Koror, Faraulep, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Puluwat Atoll), to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Hawai‘i , and the Cook Islands and Marquesas Islands.
When considering growing your own Ylang-Ylang (which I highly recommend), it is most commonly propagated by seed. New trees can also be propagated by cuttings which requires a bit more luck and can result in varying degrees of success. Direct-seeding in the field is also effective in the right circumstances and conditions. The easiest method, and the one that I have personally had the most success with is to gently collect small specimens from under the existing trees and raise them in growing bags for 2–3 months before out planting the new starts. Remember to leave sufficient space for a deep taproot and tall wide growth for the mature trees.
In summary, the appearance of the flowers of the Ylang-Ylang tree are not particularly impressive, but its powerful sweet fragrance makes this a must have in your garden. An early bloomer, its fast growth means you will see flowers when the tree is still relatively young. The branches are known to be brittle and break easily so protection from strong winds is recommended when picking a planting site. The Ylang Ylang likes the heat and will grow and bloom during the warm season, but fear not, as this hearty tree can survive low temperatures and even freezing for short periods of time. The later being something I sincerely hope does not happen any time soon in tropical Costa Rica!
Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.