Saturday, October 12, 2013

Philippine Indigenous Perfume: The Sweet Scent of Ilang-Ilang


Children love to pick its flowers, and passersby look up to trace the source of the fragrance. Imagine the sweet-scented night air around the tree. It is therapeutic after a hard day's work. In the morning before I go to work, I spend a little time under the tree, relishing the freshness of the surroundings. Here I wait for sunrise and listens to the songs of birds perched on its branches.

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Ruby gathers freshly picked flowers of ilang ilang (Cananga odorata)
which she shall place at a home altar of Mama Mary and Santo NiƱo. QC

 

Ilang-Ilang (Cananga odorata) is an important source of essential oil. Ilang-ilang oil perfume is known all over the worldwide, specially in Italy and France, two countries known for their fabulous perfumes. Remember Lily of the Valley, during the pre-war era? It was made from Philippine ilang-ilang, its oil extracted through distillation. However, there are countries which have learned the trade and became our competitors. Moreover other sources of perfume have been developed lately.


Standing Tall

The tree stands tall, it reaches more than ten meters, towering over houses and other trees and emerging through the forest canopy. Its somewhat drooping branches bear the weight of thick foliage and pendulous flower clusters that exude sweet-smelling volatile oil detected far and wide.

And yet the ilang-ilang’s flower looks unassuming. Its color is green to yellowish green when mature, its petals thick, narrow, pointed and somewhat hairy. It hangs in groups of three, six, to as many as twelve, each in different stages of development. One by one, as the flowers are fertilized by insects, their petals dry up and fall like confetti, still exuding the characteristic perfume. Fruits are formed in place arranged like a crown, then turn black at maturity after which these fall off or are picked by birds or bats.

Our ilang ilang tree at home must have come by seed carried by bird or bat from the nearby La Mesa watershed where a towering ilang-ilang tree is visible across the subdivision. The tree is now thirty years old and it dominates the trees in the neighborhood.

 Children love to pick its flowers, and passersby look up to trace the source of the fragrance. Imagine the sweet-scented night air around the tree. It is therapeutic after a hard day's work. In the morning before I go to work, I spend a little time under the tree, relishing the freshness of the surroundings. Here I wait for sunrise and listens to the songs of birds perched on its branches.
The many uses of ilang ilang; the tree in full bloom usually in summer

The Garland Makers

On one Sunday, a father and son came to ask if they could gather the flowers of our ilang-ilang tree. They are from a family of necklace (lei and garland) makers who live not far our place. Patrick had just finished high school and was preparing for college.

“We have been making garlands for sometime now. It is our livelihood,” Elias told me. “Our trade is seasonal. The church on Sunday is a good place to sell. Sometimes we get orders for weddings and other special occasions like during graduation.”

Ka Elias continued, while gathering flowers with a special pole. Patrick, on the other hand, gathered the harvested flowers and kept them in a bag to keep them fresh.


 Ilang-Ilang as lei and pendant

According to Ka Elias, a simple lei is made of four heads: unopened sampaguita flowers, three or four on each side on an abaca string. Two flowers of ilang-ilang make the pendant. On the sidewalk, a good pair of a lei is sold for P10.

The making of floral necklaces has given households, like that of Ka Elias, a means of livelihood. The whole family is involved, and the children get to earn some money for their own tuition and are able to help their parents.

Sometimes when traffic is heavy, I take time to talk with necklace sellers. I feel good whenever I buy garlands from these hard-working children. Here is simple economics I figured out. If an ilang-ilang tree yields flowers with a value is P200 a week on the average, that would make P5,600 a year, and this is possible because ilang-ilang blooms throughout the year. Value added when made into leis doubles this amount. And that's just from a single tree.
Happy young vendors of leis made of sampaguita, kamia, and ilangilang as pendant. QC

Thus, ilang-ilang farms (or even those grown in backyards) could prove to be a profitable endeavor. I saw ilang-ilang seedlings for sale at the Manila Seedling Bank, along Quezon Avenue corner EDSA. On the other hand, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) may be able to teach you how oil from ilang-ilang can be extracted as natural perfume and for the manufacture of cosmetics and soap. The same department also has a technology package, through PCARRD, for the production of ilang-ilang and sampaguita.

Aside from being a livelihood for many, it may also help the country’s economy, as a dollar saver and earner with the export of its fragrant oil. And the ilang-ilang tree is good for reforesting the hillside and the upland.

Plant an ilang-ilang tree. It could be the start of a good business. If not, you will simply bring Nature close to your home. ~

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