Ylang-ylang isn’t really translated as ‘the flower of flowers,’ as stated by Britannica.com, but it might as well be, at least for me. It’s one of my favorite aromatherapy essential oils (not fragrance oils, mind you) and one that I use primarily for myself as it can be quite overpowering to the uninitiated.
It also comes with quite an interesting history when it comes to Old Manila, involving quite a few enterprising Germans and Botica Boie, a popular drugstore in operation till the 1960’s which had the original soda fountain in Manila.
Ylang-ylang’s botanical name is cananga odorata and is a fast-growing tree that can exceed 15 feet per year. It grows in full or partial sun and has large, drooping, long-stalked flowers with greenish-yellow petals.
Two men are credited to be the first to begin distilling the oil of the ylang ylang – Albertus Schwenger and Frederick Steck.
“…the first distillation of the oil is credited to Albertus Schwenger, who operated a small mobile still in the Philippines in the mid-nineteenth century, and the first commercial operation was started by Steck, who ran a German apothecary, and his nephew Paul Sartorius; the oil was marketed as “Ylang Ylang Sartorius” and it gained an international reputation. Ylang ylang oil was one of the new scents exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition in 1878 (Morris 1984).”
Locally known as Don Frederiko, Steck owned Botica de Santa Cruz located on the Escolta.
F. Stek would be the first to devote himself in Manila to the distillation of ilang-ilang oil [Pharm. Zentralh 9. (1868) 46]; the Sartorius brand of this essence, then the object of a flourishing industry in Manila, came to acquire a worldwide claim.”
“His enterprise won the gold medal and highest awards at the expositions of Madrid in 1887 and St. Louis in 1904 under the trade mark of “Pablo Sartorius,” his nephew’s name. (The patent for “ilang-ilang” now belongs to YSL and it is sourced mainly from India.) It commanded the highest prices in the European market. A total of 2.504 kilos was exported in 1914.
Seeing the success of Steck, others came up with similar products but of inferior quality or produced even artificial oils, causing the market to falter. The market never recovered, especially since the places where “ilang-ilang” grew were converted into housing projects.”
in 1921, Coco Chanel asked Russian Ernest Bo (Beaux) to “make an ideal smell of a woman.”
“…he presented two series of samples: from the 1st to the 5th, and from the 20th to the 24th. Chanel chose the 5th, which consisted of the aromas of a rose, a jasmine and Ylang-Ylang flowers.
When questioned about giving it a name, she answered that the collection would be on sale on the 5th day of the 5th month, and consequently it was called “Chanel # 5.”
Since the after WWII, the fragrant flowers of the ylang-ylang are often strung together into necklaces along with the delicate flowers of the sampaguita and sold nearby churches in Manila.
The necklaces, which resemble of lei of flowers, unfortunately don’t last too long. By the following day, they dry up though the scent lingers on, but pull the flowers from the thread holding them together and place them in a bowl of water, and you’ll have its scent, with its deep notes of rubber and mustard and bright notes of jasmine and neroli wafting about the room.