Ylang Ylang : Perfume Lexicon & Fragrance Language

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Some perfume materials have an unwavering place of honor—rose, jasmine, sandalwood. Ylang ylang, on the other hand, has often been called “a poor man’s jasmine” and given various inferior descriptors. Today, of course, that proverbial poor man must be swimming in cash to afford ylang ylang oil in his perfumes, but ylang ylang still loses in a competition with jasmine. I would like to come to its defense and explain why ylang ylang is such a fascinating material that should be compared to nothing but itself.

Obtained either by steam distillation (oil) or solvent extraction (absolute) from the flowers of Cananga odorata tree, ylang ylang has a unique character. It is complex enough to work as a perfume! The unusually vivid top has a verdant richness that alternates between wintergreen and orange leaves. The delicate heart note is redolent of ripe apricots and spicy florals, while the sweet, balsamic drydown is warm and enveloping. Add various accents like crème brûlée, apple or rubber, and you have a multifaceted raw material that can be used for ethereal florals like Dior Diorissimo as well as sumptuous chypres like Rochas Femme. Ylang ylang is also sometimes used in fruity accords such as apricot and pear for the food industry.

Those who love ylang ylang will find themselves in good company. The creator of Chanel No 5, perfumer Ernest Beaux, was devoted to it as much as to rose and jasmine and said that without ylang ylang he would not have been able to use a high dosage of aldehydes in his masterpiece. He often referred to it as “my priceless Manillan ylang.” The buttery, luscious heft of ylang ylang wrapped the starchy and metallic facets of aldehydes, rendering them soft and muted.

Chanel No 5 is not the only legendary fragrance where ylang ylang plays an important role. Chanel No 22, Chanel No 19, Givenchy Ysatis, Guerlain Nahéma and Chamade as well as Caron Poivre are unimaginable without this sultry note with a chameleon character. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg—there are numerous fragrances in which versatile ylang ylang is used either to give a warmer facet to the drydown, a lush sweetness to the floral accord, or a wintergreen brightness to the top notes. I love its accent in Hermès 24, Faubourg, Serge Lutens À La Nuit and Estée Lauder Amber Ylang Ylang. Finally, the undercurrent of ylang ylang in a sparkling citrus like Annick Goutal Les Nuits d’Hadrien lends it an alluring richness.

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32 Comments

  • Andy: I am so glad to see this post! It is one I had requested in December. I have been lucky enough to smell real ylang ylang flowers, which definately helps distinguish between high and low quality ylang oils. I love yang’s rubbery edge! January 13, 2012 at 6:23am Reply

  • Angi: Even though I can never find any sort of description of the notes anywhere, I would swear Coty Paris has a hefty dose of ylang ylang in there. (Along with lilac, and god knows what else.) January 13, 2012 at 8:18am Reply

  • Grusheczka: I love this note and I’m so happy to see your article this morning! I was first introduced to it through Yves Rocher’s bath products, some of which are still available. Sadly, I’ve never smelled the real thing. To me, it combines my favorite aspects of tuberose (rubbery, skinline creaminess), jasmine (its sweetness) plus it has its own thing going with spicy, foody edges. I absolutely love it! January 13, 2012 at 9:23am Reply

  • Victoria: I remembered the request! I happen to love this note, so it was a pleasure to write about it. 🙂 January 13, 2012 at 11:18am Reply

  • Victoria: I can believe it. It is used in many compositions, from an accent to a dominant accord. Really, it is so versatile. January 13, 2012 at 11:18am Reply

  • Victoria: Yves Rocher’s bath products are great! I still remember how good their Mimosa and Peony used to be. I have not purchased them in a while, so I am not sure if they still smell like they used to. January 13, 2012 at 11:19am Reply

  • carmencanada: I’ve found ylang brings naturality and heft to floral accords, even when it’s not featured as a note in itself. I’ve also seen it interact with jasmine to produce ripe banana notes. And in tropical themes, it contributes so well to salty/solar effects… Truly an incredibly versatile material! I’ve been alternating Yves Rocher’s Ylang-Ylang and Tiaré shower gels lately and I’d recommend them, they’re lovely and fairly subtle for the price. January 13, 2012 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: Jasmine and ylang ylang on their own have strong banana nuances, and in clever pairings the banana can be amplified. But in market tests strong ylang ylang notes do not score well–too wintergreen-minty. January 13, 2012 at 12:49pm Reply

  • Jenna: I remember Andy requesting a post on ylang ylang from you in your Christmas thread. I was keeping my fingers crossed that you would write about it. I love this note too. Wearing Private Collection Amber Ylang Ylang today. January 13, 2012 at 3:43pm Reply

  • Victoria: Amber Ylang Ylang is beautiful! I wore it just the other day. It wears like a warm cashmere wrap, an irresistible sensation on a cold winter day. January 13, 2012 at 4:38pm Reply

  • skilletlicker: I’ve been waiting for this one. So illuminating! Thanks, Victoria!!! January 13, 2012 at 5:47pm Reply

  • Jenna: You also mention Nahema. What do you think of the current version? January 13, 2012 at 7:19pm Reply

  • Martin: Add me to the list of those who’ve been waiting to read about ylang ylang. The descriptions of it always confused me. “Poor man’s jasmine” just doesn’t sound good. Is it ever used in masculine fragrances? January 13, 2012 at 7:21pm Reply

  • Martin: I’m traveling to the Comoro Islands soon, so I hope that I will find ylang ylang in bloom there. I read that the place is famous for its ylang ylang. January 13, 2012 at 7:24pm Reply

  • Victoria: Lucky you! I would love to travel there to smell ylang ylang in its natural setting. January 13, 2012 at 8:49pm Reply

  • Victoria: I like the current version. It is thinner than the original one, with some elements (rose-plum and animalic notes) being softer, but it is still very beautiful. January 13, 2012 at 8:50pm Reply

  • Victoria: You are most welcome! Andy inspired me. 🙂 January 13, 2012 at 8:51pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, yes, it is versatile enough for all genres. Grey Flannel and Brut come to mind, while in Nicolai’s Vetiver ylang ylang add such a lush accent to the classical chypre accord. January 13, 2012 at 8:54pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: all the above and it is a beautiful looking flower too! January 15, 2012 at 3:44am Reply

  • Victoria: I have some dry flowers, and their smell is wonderful! January 15, 2012 at 10:03am Reply

  • hongkongmom: r they still pretty dried? January 15, 2012 at 9:09pm Reply

  • Victoria: Eh, no, not really. They look like brownish ribbons. But if you mix them with pine cones and shells, they work in homemade potpourri. I wrapped them in some fabric and put them in our bedroom. I like to get a whiff of their scent before I fall asleep. January 15, 2012 at 9:18pm Reply

  • Andy: I certainly wish I was going somewhere as exciting! I actually did not smell ylang ylang in Comoros or anywhere tropical. I smelled it at my favorite botanical garden (which happens to be fairly local), Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, PA. It would seem that ylang ylang wouldn’t be too hard to find in the Comoros islands, as ylang ylang essential oil makes up about a third of their exports. You’ll have to update us all once you have gone! If all goes well, I think you’ll agree that the flowers smell absolutely intoxicating. January 15, 2012 at 10:12pm Reply

  • Victoria: Andy, I had no idea that Longwood Gardens grow ylang ylang. Now, I want to visit; we are close to PA. January 15, 2012 at 10:29pm Reply

  • hongkongmom: sounds great. i think they may grow up on the peak in hk. we were walking there and smelled a kind a jasmin…i need to go back and check! January 16, 2012 at 1:08am Reply

  • Andy: They had it as of a few months ago, but the last time I visited it wasn’t there anymore 🙁 .They had originally brought a small ylang ylang tree in as a part of an exhibit all about fragrant plants, but I don’t know that they are going to keep it around because it wasn’t there when I visited in December. However, Longwood is to me one of the best botanical gardens you can visit in the Northeast, and if you visit, you can always be assured a fragrant surprise. My favorite part is the acacia passage, which is a long conservatory hallway filled with feathery acacias. It always smells honeyed and sweet, especially in february when the acacias are usually in bloom (but apparently they always are fragrant because they also emit their scent lightly from the leaves and bark). I highly recommend it! January 16, 2012 at 8:56am Reply

  • Victoria: My husband has been suggested a visit for a while, so I think that we should visit. Thank you for giving me an added incentive. The grove of acacia trees sounds wonderful. It is one of my favorite scents. January 16, 2012 at 11:11am Reply

  • Victoria: I think that it grows all over East Asia in the warm, humid areas. Good luck! 🙂 January 16, 2012 at 11:12am Reply

  • Flora: LOVE ylang ylang! One of my favorites is the lovely and gentle Tasneem from La Via del Profumo – made from the second extraction of the flower, it has an almond-like character while still being floral.

    As a fan of tropical florals in general, I can’t imagine perfumery without this wonderful flower. January 16, 2012 at 6:12pm Reply

  • Victoria: Another fragrance on my must-try list! Thank you, Donna. Tropical florals can give such a beautiful flourish to perfumes. Even something as plump and serious as Parfums de Nicolai Number One feels brighter and more light-hearted thanks to a rich accent of ylang-ylang. January 16, 2012 at 6:32pm Reply

  • Brian Shea: I too love Ylang Ylang. I’m glad someone mentioned the banana-like note as well. I also get a bubblegum note too, maybe that’s the wintergreen that you were mentioning? Ylang Ylang Extra has a lot of both notes, while the absolute has them but a bit smoothed out. The Ylang Ylang III distillation is very, very creamy. It’s my favorite version. Down here in Miami we can grow Ylang Ylang, in fact there is a tree at the Miami Beach Botanic Gardens and at the Fairchild Tropical Garden. The actual flowers have the characteristic smell, but there is something rather vanillic/balsamic running through the odor as well. I like to take a blossom or two(shhhh) from the tree and put them in a small bowl of water on my nightstand. I love ylang ylang with vanilla, nutmeg, clove, coconut, and lime. June 24, 2012 at 12:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Brian, that banana or a bubblegum note comes from benzyl acetate. You might smell it in jasmine too.

      I love your description of ylang ylang blossoms! June 24, 2012 at 10:22am Reply

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