It is a tropical yellow-flowered tree, which is highly sought after for essential oil used in prestige perfumery. "It (the oil) is a complex chemical, violent and strong" that "enhances the high quality ingredients", said Jean Kerléo a former perfumer at Jean Patou and creator of the world’s largest scent archive - the Osmotheque at Versailles, France. “It pairs well with jasmine and is complementary. It’s used a lot in floral perfumes, where it is the base product in the bouquet. I myself used it in ’Sublime’ for Patou which I created in 1992 and which still exists,” he adds.

The French introduced the tree on the island of Reunion in the 1700s and in the early 1900s its cultivation spread to the nearby islands of Comoros and Madagascar.

"If I had to describe the smell, it’s jasmine, but more heightened, and stronger. It’s almost fruity. You get a whiff of pear and coconut to start with, accompanied all the while by a floral scent. As the fragrance settles, there’s a hint of carnation, a hint of clove," said Christopher Sheldrake, Chanel’s director for perfume research and development.

350 distilleries

The ylang ylang oil, along with vanilla and cloves, brings precious foreign exchange to Comoros, boosting its frail economy. Each year, the archipelago of three islands produces between 30 and 40 tonnes of this essential oil - ahead of Madagascar - mainly on the island of Anjouan, home to 350 distilleries.

La fleur d'ylang-ylang est surtout prisée pour ses vertus odoriférantes. ©...

La fleur d’ylang-ylang est surtout prisée pour ses vertus odoriférantes. © AFP Photo / Marco Longari

Exports of ylan ylang essential oil amounted to about 1.5 million euros (US $1.6 million) in 2013 and 2014, which represents 11 per cent of Comoros’ revenue.

Ibrahim Ahamada, an economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), said the flower remains "a potential source of income and significant currency for the country" provided there is "serious reorganisation of the sector". Actually, to increase production, farms need to improve the quality of the plants, investment is needed in infrastructure and measures to tackle deforestation must be put in place. A revamping of the sector begun last year with international funds.

Deforestation and rural migration

For several years, governmental authorities and agronomists are raising the alarm bell over threats on the ylang ylang flower.

This tree is grown somewhat like a vine and requires constant maintenance. Without regular pruning, the trunk grows too high for farmers to access the flowers. However, Comorian plantations of this tree now have over a hundred years of age. "Despite the economic importance of the ylang ylang essential oil, there is surprising no plant breeding program," said agronomist Céline Benini of the University of Liège, Belgium.

Deforestation is also a major problem: forest cover has shrunk by 25 per cent in 20 years. Given the patchy electricity supply, even the distillation of the ylang ylang essential oil in old alembics requires a lot of wood.

There are also few people willing to take on the backbreaking tasks of pruning the plants and picking between 25 to 40 kilogrammes of flowers a day in high season. A job paying about 50 euros a month. As a consequence, farmers sometimes encourage their children to try their luck in cities, where basic salaries ranges between 50 and 90 euros per month, but the lack of jobs available in the country often lead them to migrate overseas.

Securing supply sources

Perfumers are well aware of the difficulties and threats on the production of this strategic plant, in particular because the case is also not isolated.

Fatima Saidi, 45, reaches out for Ylang-Ylang flowers on the slopes of the...

Fatima Saidi, 45, reaches out for Ylang-Ylang flowers on the slopes of the Karthala volcano © AFP Photo / Marco Longari

Today, there are about a hundred critical raw materials in perfumery, for which a minimum of stability in terms of price and quality must be ensured. Many of these materials come from countries plagued by rural depopulation, where plantations are being abandoned for good as people flow towards large cities. In India, Laos, Uganda, Haiti… we have been investing in programmes to support rural populations and help them grow their cultures, while ensuring them stable incomes and prospects in the long term. We make sure these people get a stable income so they can plant, invest, and innovate. This is designed to be a long-lasting organization,” said Olivier de Lisle, who is in charge of the Fine Fragrance Department at Firmenich, in a recent interview to Premium Beauty News.

As far as Comorian ylang ylang is concerned, Chanel says it is trying to get its suppliers to plant their own trees for firewood in order to meet the needs of the essential oil extraction. The French perfumer also says it is committed to providing better conditions and fair wages for the workers on these plantations.