With gangly yellow-green petals that hang limply from their stem, the ylang ylang flower is not much to look at. But its powerful scent is so sublime that is has become a favourite of the world's perfumers. It forms the basis of many floral perfumes, including Chanel No 5 and it is widely used in cosmetics and aromatherapy.
The ylang ylang tree is native to the Philippines, where it got its name which translates as 'flower of flowers in Tagalog. A massive 80% of the entire world supply, however, comes from the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago of the Comoros islands, one of the least known and least developed nations in Africa. In the last five years a booming aromatherapy market, increased interest in luxury perfumes in India and China and a bidding war over flowers among buyers in the Comoros has sent the value of ylang ylang skyrocketing. A few years ago a kilogram of flowers cost 100 Comorian Francs (USD 0.23). Today it can fetch around 2,500 (USD 5.85).
The spiralling prices have brought some challenges. Distillers find themselves in bitter conflict over a limited supply of flowers, and the farmers have reported that their flowers are being stolen from the trees by thieves. Some distillers are using tricks like mixing brake fluid with the ylang ylang oil to maximise their profits, while others are smuggling their oil off the island to bypass quality control checks.
But the new wave of interest has breathed new life into an industry that had been in decline for decades. Foreign buyers are becoming involved on the ground, funding local NGOs to reorganise the sector and make it sustainable, and to improve the quality of the product. Initiatives are underway to reduce the deforestation caused by the wood-guzzling essential oil distilleries, which have doubled in number in recent years. Young people, who had been shunning the sector for decades, are becoming involved once again, and new ylang ylang trees are being planted by the thousand to supplement the unproductive, ageing plantations of the past.
"A few years ago it looked like the industry might die out altogether" said one official working for an ylang ylang-focused charity. "Now young people are starting to get involved. More organisations are trying to help. Production is increasing, and so is quality. More people are planting ylang ylang trees - the industry is coming back."