Our Perfumed History

Renato Redentor Constantino

Chandler Burr dwelled on “the mystery of smell” in his intriguing 2004 book, The Emperor of Scent. “We understand the human sense of vision,” Burr wrote, “intimately down to exactly which vibration of a particle of light caught in the vision receptor in the retina will make us see exactly which color… We know hearing in exquisite detail, can predict with absolute accuracy which air vibration in the cochlea will create what tone. But of smell, we do not know, cannot predict.”

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Scent is a curious notion. And Burr might even agree, as with many details in life, a lot of things become more interesting once you apply a bit of history, even things you’d normally associate with the nose. The experience is easily demonstrated in the case of the flower of cananga odorata, a tree most Filipinos know as ylang-ylang. We encounter it often when strung with sampaguita garlands and sold in Metro Manila streets. But not many know the flower very much has links to the revolutionary past of the Philippines.

It should not be surprising to encounter the 20-foot ylang-ylang tree inside PUP’s main campus. The university is in Sta. Mesa, whose streets in the 19th century were once lined with ylang-ylang. Back then Sta. Mesa was a big supplier of flower-derived essential oils to some of the world’s largest perfumeries in France.

Native to the Philippines, the ylang-ylang is “a fast-maturing tree that can [also] be found endogenous in tropical Asian countries.” Iplantz, a botanical database of hundreds of tropical and subtropical plants, describes it as “a fast-growing tree” that, in cultivation, can grow up to 10 to 33 feet tall. “The flowers are large, made up of six slender petals up to 13 cm long that are green and twisted when young, becoming yellow, limp and drooping when mature. They are borne in profusion, in clusters of four to twelve arising at the leaf bases and come into bloom in the rainy season.”

Photos of Sintang Lakbay participants at the Ylang Ylang tree found at the vicinity of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, The Ylang Ylang is known to have a potent fragrance, while its oil is widely used in perfume and other cosmetic products. PHOTO / LEO M. SABANGAN II

In the Philippines, judging from the experience of EA Real Agrofarm, a business based in Aurora Province, “it takes three years to cultivate ylang-ylang from seed to flower and five years to reach full bloom.” The agribusiness tells us the critical difference with other fruit-bearing trees is the way ylang-ylang “are pruned to a certain height to make harvesting easier.” Each year, an ylang-ylang tree produces an average of 5 kilos of flowers, according to the fragrance boutique, Carrementbelle.com, “It grows quickly and generally produces flowers until it is 50 years old.”

Ylang-ylang blooms are so fragrant they are used as a base note, a foundational fragrance providing depth and longevity to particular scents. The sensual aroma of the flower is the reason why it is a key ingredient to Dior’s J’adore and why it is central to Supreme Bouquet, a perfume by Yves Saint Laurent that – at the tiny quantity of 75 ml., sells for over Php11,000. Ylang-ylang is also the base note for Chanel No. 5, the most famous fragrance produced by Coco Chanel, who was a Nazi collaborator, which is another story for another day. It’s enough to know, from a value of USD40.02 million in 2023, the global ylang-ylang market is expected to reach USD57.86 million by 2031.

Apart from the calming aroma of ylang-ylang, oils extracted from the flowers and leaves “have exhibited antimicrobial, insecticidal, and anti-inflammatory activities… [including] insect-repellent properties.” According to Munting Luntian, the gorgeous book of PUP documenting wayside perennial plants in its Mabini campus, “The flower can be pounded to form paste” to treat asthma and its “bark … is prepared as a decoction to treat stomach problems.”

It’s clear ylang-ylang trees deserve our love. They are called a pollinator paradise because the bright color and powerful scent of its flowers attracts bats, bees, butterflies, and birds. But there’s another reason to protect the ylang-ylang: they are also Filipino repositories of local and national memory.

In the middle of the 19th century, a German sailor named Albertus Schwenger was the first to extract ylang-ylang oil using steam from his mobile still in Manila. But it was Friedrich Steck, a German pharmacist, who was the first to bring distilled ylang-ylang essence to commercial operations through the Escolta pharmacy he named after his nephew, Pablo Sartorius.

According to Dr. Jennifer Peace Rhind, a Chartered Biologist of the Royal Society of Biology from the University of Strathclyde, “The oil was marketed as ‘Ylang Ylang Sartorius’ and gained an international reputation.” It “won the gold medal and [the] highest awards at the Philippine Exposition held at the Crystal Palace in the Retiro of Madrid, Spain in 1887”, was among of the new scents “exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition in 1878” and “the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri, USA in 1904.” During this period, “ylang-ylang essence commanded the highest prices on the European market.”

At the center of a flourishing industry in Manila, Sartorius “came to acquire … worldwide fame,” with the company’s reputation attracting young talent such as Dr. Heinrich Rothdauscher, a student of the great chemist Justus von Liebig, whose research was studied closely by Karl Marx. The historian Ramon Guillermo tells us how Rothdauscher’s interest was secured by offering the young pharmacist, who had just passed state examinations in Munich, a five-year contract in Manila inclusive of all travel expenses and complete provisions.

Over a century before the global presence of oil from Philippine ylang-ylang was supplanted by Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, the fragrant trees were growing “extensively in Sta. Mesa, San Juan and adjacent regions solely for their flowers.” But in 1896, economic “reverses piled up: a drought, a locust plague, a coffee blight, a food shortage and some other adversities had hit the Tagalog region.” That very year in August, the same month the Katipunan declared open revolution for ginhawa and against Spanish rule, hacenderos imposed new surcharges on tenants tending to mango and bamboo, including the imposition of “35 cents for every ilang-ilang tree.” As the “first provinces that rose in revolt were those in which there were extensive friar estates,” ylang-ylang “growers joined the farmers, the shopkeepers and the working people of Manila in tearing up their cedula, that odious symbol of taxation. Thus did the fragrant flowers contribute their bit to the Revolution.”

“I should think,” wrote the eminent physician and biologist Lewis Thomas, “that we might fairly gauge the future of biological science, centuries ahead, by estimating the time it will take to reach a complete understanding of odor,” and just as the empire of scent “contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries,” we can only hope our people’s history with the ylang-ylang can help trigger more reflection from Filipinos. It’s about time we sniff out the missing critical elements of our past so we may one day soon complete the continuing puzzle that is our nation.“The act of smelling something,” said Thomas, “is remarkably like the act of thinking itself. Immediately, at the very moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertoires throughout the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, old memories, connections.”

Panimulang Tala ukol sa Ylang Ylang bilang Industriya sa Pilipinas

Arvin Lloyd B. Pingul

Binabanggit sa isang kolum ni Paulo Alcazaren na marami sa mga mayayaman na mga pamilyang Pilipino at mga Espanyol ang nagtayo ng mga bahay sa Santa Mesa dulot ng malamig nitong klima. Isa ring kaaya ayang lugar ang Santa Mesa dulot ng mga puno ng Ilang ilang sa mga kalye nito. Dagdag pa nito, hindi nagtagal na naging isang industriya (sa Pilipinas) ang pagpoproseso ng Ilang ilang at ang langis nito ay kinakalakal palabas ng bansa partikular sa Pransya na siyang ginagamit bilang pangunahing sangkap sa paggawa ng mga pabango.

Hindi kataka taka na mayroong mga larawan sa mga diyaryo ukol sa mga pabango mula sa Ilang ilang na mula sa mga kumpanya mula sa Pransya gaya ng mga larawan na makikita sa ibaba.

Larawan mula sa Diario de Manila, Nobyembre 10, 1883. Pahina 4 https://gpa.eastview.com/crl/sea/newspapers/dodm18831110-01.1.4.

Larawan mula sa Diario de Manila, Mayo 4, 1898. Pahina 4

Hindi kataka taka na ang Pilipinas ang pangunahing pinagkukunan ng langis ng Ylang Ylang bilang sangkap sa ibat ibang produkto gaya ng mga pabango na makikita sa itaas. Sa isang pag aaral na ginawa ni Raymond Bacon ukol sa Ylang ylang bilang industriya sa Pilipinas at sa siyentipikong pag aaral nito, aniya, ang Ylang ylang ang pinakamahalaga at tanging industriya ng pabango sa bansa, na singhalaga ng abaca. Isang pangunahing dahilan ni Bacon ay may kinalaman sa pagkukumpara sa kalidad ng langis mula sa Ylang ylang sa iba pang mga bansa, at ang Pilipinas ang nangunguna rito. 

Hindi nagsimula ang interes sa industriya ng langis ng Ylang ylang sa panahong Amerikano, maging sa nakaraang kolonisador, isang pang eksport na kalakal ang ylang ylang. Sa datos ni Bacon, naglalaro sa humigit kumulang isang libong kilo ang eksport ng ylang ylang kada taon mula 1885 – 1889. Naglalaro din sa ganitong datos ang eksport nito sa mga taong 1890 at 1894. Ngunit pinakamataas ang eksport nito sa taong 1892 na umabot ng 11,095 na kilo ang naieksport at biglang bumaba naman sa sumunod na taon na 2,284 na kilo. Walang datos kaugnay mula 1895 -1899 dulot na rin ng sa mga panahong ito, partikular noong 1896 ay nagsisimula na ang himagsikang Pilipino tungong digmaang Pilipino-Amerikano. Ngunit sa panahong 1900-1908, naging malakas ang industriya ng eksport ng ylang ylang na nasa humigit 7 libong kilo hanggang 27 na libong kilo ang nailalabas sa bansa kada taon.

Eksport ng Langis ng Ylang ylang mula 1900-1908. Mula sa, Bacon, Ylang Ylang Oil, pahina 65.

Eksport ng Langis ng Ylang ylang mula 1885-1894. Mula sa, Bacon, Ylang Ylang Oil, pahina 65.

Isang pangunahing dahilan ani Bacon sa pagtaas ng eksport ng Ylang ylang ay hindi na lamang nakalimita ito bilang sangkap sa mga pabango kundi maging sa iba pang mga produkto. Isang pangunahing batayan na maaaring tingnan dito ay ang mga ads na makikita sa ibat ibang mga pahayagan sa panahong ito (tingnan ang mga larawan sa ibaba). Noong 1902, nakatala sa Diyaryo ng El Progreso na magkakaroon ng isang Eksposisyon sa Hanoi sa pangunguna ng mga Pranses bilang kolonisador nito. Tinanggap ng Pilipinas ang paanyaya ng mga Pranses na magkaroon ng Espasyo sa eksposisyon sa mga produktong Pilipino. Isa sa mga nasabing produkto ay ang esencia de ilang ilang na mula sa mga negosyante gaya ni Benito Legarda, at sa mga kumpanya gaya ng B. Feced mula sa Nueva Caceres (Camarines), at ng Farmacia Boie ng Escolta.

“Page 3.” The Cablenews-American, June 7, 1916. https://gpa.eastview.com/crl/sea/newspapers/cana19160607-01.1.3.

“Page 5.” The Cablenews-American, November 2, 1916. https://gpa.eastview.com/crl/sea/newspapers/cana19161102-01.1.5.

“Page 5.” The Cablenews-American, November 5, 1916. https://gpa.eastview.com/crl/sea/newspapers/cana19161105-01.1.5.

“Page 5.” The Cablenews-American, November 14, 1916. https://gpa.eastview.com/crl/sea/newspapers/cana19161114-01.1.5.

“Page 4.” The cablenews, October 17, 1906. https://gpa.eastview.com/crl/sea/newspapers/cbln19061017-01.1.4.

“Journal. [1923].” In the digital collection The United States and its Territories, 1870 – 1925: The Age of Imperialism. https://name.umdl.umich.edu/aaj0523.1923.001. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 15, 2024.

Mapapansin na sentro ng komersyo ng bentahan ng langis ng ylang ylang ang Escolta. Ang mga nagbebenta nito gaya ng English Drug Store, German Dispensery, at Botica Boie ay kapwa matatagpuan sa Escolta na siyang pangunahing sentro din ng kalakal noon sa Maynila. 

Dulot ng pagtaas ng industriya ng ylang ylang sa Pilipinas, nagkaroon din ng mga kaso ng pagnanakaw sa mga tanim nito. Dalawang tala mula sa El Renacimiento at El Pueblo de Grito ang makikita ukol sa nakawan ng puno ng Ilang Ilang sa San Juan Del Monte. Sa tala ng El Pueblo de Grito noong Hunyo 7, 1904, isang lingo na ang nakalilipas nang nakawan ang plantasyon ng Ilang ilang sa San Juan Del Monte na pagmamay ari ng mga Amerikanong si M.C. Clarke. Nakuha dito ang nasa dalawandaang kakatanim pa lamang na mga ilang ilang. Sa San Juan del monte din na mukhang kaugnay ng pangyayari sa itaas, makikita sa diyaryo ng El Renacimiento (Setyembre 5, 1904) na si Bernardino Magtaos di-umano’y nagnakaw ng mga puno ng ilang ilang. Dinakip ito ng mga pulis at may paalala pa sa nasabing pahayagan na “Siya, magtanda| ka na Binong, at sa uli uli’y huag nang mangangahas ñ (sic) ganyang pagcuha sa ari ng may ari.”

Sa kasalukuyan, hindi na ang Pilipinas ang pangunahing pinagmumulan ng Ylang ylang bilang sangkap sa ibat ibang produkto gaya ng pabango. Isang mahabang proseso ang pinagdaanan upang ang Madagascar ang siyang manguna sa pinanggagalingan ng ylang ylang. Dulot ito ng pagiging kolonya nito ng Pransya na siyang kilalang gumagawa ng mga pabango mula dito. Kung kaya’t kahit mula ang ylang ylang sa timog silangang asya partikular sa Pilipinas, gumawa ng paraan ang mga ito upang mayroon silang pagkukunan ng ylang ylang mula sa kanilang mga kolonya. Sa isang pag aaral ni James Sleigh, nagsimulang itanim ito sa Madagascar (Nosy Be) noong 1920’s ng mga misyonerong Pranses. Noong 2006, tinatayang umabot sa 10-15 metrik tons and naieksport nito na pangunahing ginagamit sa mga kilalang pabango ngayon sa Pransya gaya ng Chanel. 

Gayumpaman, hindi nawala industriya ng pagtatanim ng ylang ylang sa Pilipinas. Mayroon pa ring mga lugar sa Pilipinas na nagpapalawak ng pagtatanim nito gaya ng Iba Botanicals sa Zambales na siyang pinagkukunan ng ylang ylang bilang sangkap sa Santa Ana Gin. Bukod sa Santa Ana Gin na may sangkap ng ylang ylang, nariyan din ang iba pang inuming nakalalasing gaya ng Agimat Gin at Arc Gin. Sa Mangatarem at Aguilar, Pangasinan, mayroon na ring Philippine Ylang Ylang Foundation Inc, kung saan pangunahing itinatanim ang ylang ylang. Ayon sa tagapagtatag at may ari ng Chemworld Fragrance Factory na si Fred Reyes, muling pagbuhay na maituturing ang isinasagawang industriya ngayon ng ylang ylang sa Pilipinas. Dagdag pa nito, ang inisyatibang ito ng Pangasinan ang siyang maaaring magbalik sa Pilipinas bilang pangunahing eksporter ng ylang ylang sa mundo.

Ylang Ylang at Sta Mesa stamp design by Johnny Guarin


Sintang Lakbay is a historical walk and bike ride to promote inclusive mobility by facilitating active interaction with urban landscapes, restoring working-class memory in national history, and mobilizing public contributions to remembering through art and research. It is a collaborative project by The Polytechnic University of the Philippines, 350 Pilipinas, and the Constantino Foundation