Eric’s Pet Plant: Ylang-ylang Tree (Cananga odorata)

It has been hot in the Hudson Valley. Also in Maine. Also in New Haven, where our friend Eric has been doing what we’ve all been doing: cutting back annuals, planting fall crops and reveling in abundant tomatoes.

Unlike the rest of us, he’s also been enjoying the fragrance of  blooming Ylang-ylang, an easy bit of exotica if you have a large enough greenhouse (emphasis on the large enough).

Ylang-ylang Cananga odorata, flower

"The solitary flower of Ylang-ylang with its strap-like petals is a chartreuse to light yellow color," says Eric. "The aroma fills the large bay of the greenhouse in which we keep this easily-grown tropical tree."

Ylang-ylang Tree (Cananga odorata)

By Eric Larson

Cananga odorata is a fast-growing tropical tree (up to 2 or 3 meters per year, which is very fast growing). They top out at around 40 feet in the wild, somewhat smaller in cultivation.

Although they prefer moderate shade, the one in our greenhouse is happy in a very exposed spot because the glass reflects some of the sun’s rays, including the UV light, and we put whitewash on the greenhouses in May to reflect additional short wave radiation. In essence, during the summer all of our greenhouse plants are growing in ‘partial shade.’

Cananga odorata, ylang-ylang

This image shows the ten foot height of our tree, with about two dozen blossoms bedecking the ends of branches. Notice the white-washed surface of the greenhouse roof, which cuts the sun’s intensity by about thirty-five or forty percent. Without this precaution, the heat gain in our glass houses would cause temperatures in the 110 to 120 Fahrenheit range.

Cananga are native to the rainforests of the Philippines and Indonesia and are also widely grown in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. The common name comes from the Tagalog, with some uncertainty as to whether it is ‘ilang’ for ‘wilderness,’ referring to the natural areas where it is found, or ‘ilang-ilan’ which means ‘rare,’ perhaps alluding to its wonderfully delicate aroma.  The more widely acknowledged translation is ‘flower of flowers.’

Whatever its etymology,  Ylang-ylang’s  single attraction is its aroma, which is used in aromatherapy (good for high blood pressure and some skin problems), in everyday life as the basis for perfumes (Chanel #5 could not be made without Ylang-ylang) and in certain situations when an aphrodisiac is called for.

Margaret Mead reported that it was used by South Pacific natives  – especially in the Solomon Islands – for this purpose, often strewn on  the bed of newlywed couples, as if any further inducement or encouragement at  that point was needed. It is also one of the ingredients in MotionEaze, an herbal motion sickness medicine.

Cananga odorata flower, chartreuse stage

Flowers at the chartreuse stage

There is also an Ylang-ylang Vine, Artabotrys odoratissimus and a close relative, Artabotrys hexapetalus, the Climbing Ylang-ylang, which are in the same Custard-apple family, Annanonaceae. They too are highly aromatic.

The Custard-apple family has over thirteen hundred genera and around 2500 species, making it the largest family in the order Magnoliales.  Most family members are tropical trees, shrubs or vines but one of them, the Paw-paw, Asimina triloba, is a large shrub/small tree native to the temperate zone of  the eastern United States.

Paw paws are worthy of an entire column – or two or three – of their own, so for now I’ll just remind you that we will be hosting the last Beekeeping Seminar here at the Gardens sometime in late September or early October. Details to come on the Gardens’ web site – and in this column, of course.

(Note: Those who can’t bear to wait for paw paw columns can check out the extensive paw paw information page published by Purdue University. LL)

Disclaimer:  The views expressed within bear no relationship to Marsh Botanical Garden or Yale University or Leslie Land. This is really for entertainment value, principally my own, but if you have anything to contribute, complain about or correct, please comment. And the horse you rode in on.

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