Featured Scent: What Does Ylang Ylang Smell Like?

Known as the "Queen of perfumes," ylang ylang is a rich, elegant, floral scent used in some of the world’s most beloved fragrances. It’s lusciously sweet and earthy fragrance is also well known for its therapeutic benefits, such as soothing anxiety and promoting relaxation. 

Some describe the smell of ylang ylang as similar to that of a fruity chewing gum, although that alone is not enough of a descriptor to fully characterize this essential oil’s complex aroma.

If you’re interested in learning about the many layers of ylang ylang’s scent, then this is the article for you!  

What is Ylang Ylang?

Ylang ylang is a yellow, star-shaped flower that grows from the canaga tree (also known as the “perfume tree”), a tropical tree belonging to the custard apple family (annonaceae) and native to South Asian countries in the Indo-Pacific region. 

The scientific name for the tree is Cananga odorata — a name derived from “odoratus,” a Latin adjective meaning "fragrant, perfumed.” Sometimes the term “ylang ylang” can also be used to refer to the tree itself. 

The fragrant, evergreen cananga tree grows up to 40 meters in height, with uniquely-shaped, drooping branches covered in two rows of dark green leaves and clusters of sultry, yellow ylang ylang flowers. 

These lackadaisical flowers are bunched together in groups of 4-12 on the oldest areas of the branches. Each flower has 2 sets of 3 petals. In their earliest stages of life, the petals are green. As they mature, the petals become yellow and, eventually, they turn brown with a reddish-brown base. 

There are a couple of theories about the history of ylang ylang. Some believe the flower was spread throughout South Asia during the resettling of Polynesians in ancient times. Others hypothesize that ylang ylang became popularized during the beginning stages of European colonialism. 

In any case, ylang ylang was commercially cultivated for its aromatic essential oils starting in the 18th century.

What Does Ylang Ylang Smell Like?

The smell of ylang ylang features romantic floral notes with hints of custard, jasmine, banana, neroli, and honey. 

When it comes to candle scents and home fragrances, ylang ylang is not your average Joe. You’ll discover distinct, botanical elements every time you take a whiff of this multifaceted scent. 

That’s not to say that the smell of ylang ylang is overpowering — it blends extremely well with a variety of other fragrance notes. In fact, ylang ylang is used in the highly-sought-after Chanel No. 5 perfume. Other renowned perfumes that use ylang ylang include: 

  • L’air du Temps by Nina Ricci
  • Givenchy Amarige
  • Dior J’Adore
  • Estee Lauder Aerin Beauty Tuberose
  • Tom Ford Jasmin Rouge

Tantalizing, charming, sweet, and sensual, the scent of ylang ylang is one of our favorites at the Harlem Candle Company and forms a radiant base for the vibrant and full-bodied “Lady Day” Luxury Candle

So what exactly does ylang ylang smell like? Here’s how we like to describe this beautiful aroma:

  • Rich
  • Floral
  • Sweet
  • Fruity, tangy undertones
  • Slightly green or earthy
  • Slightly spicy
  • Refined and sultry

The scent of ylang ylang is tropical and exotic, with a verdant richness and a memorable sweetness. If you’ve never smelled ylang ylang before, the closest comparison we can think of is perhaps jasmine.

Because of it’s sweet, floral characteristics, ylang ylang is often thought of as a feminine scent (although there are certainly some unisex and masculine fragrances that also do ylang ylang justice!). 

The romantic elements of ylang ylang might just give you the urge to turn on your favorite jazz record, pour a glass of wine, and relax — basically the perfect night in. 

Where Does the Scent of Ylang Ylang Come From?

Ylang ylang essential oil is extracted from its flowers through a process called steam distillation. Through this process, steam vaporizes the flower’s volatile compounds which are then condensed and collected. 

Several forms of the essential oil are extracted depending on how it will be used. A stronger concentration of oil is needed for perfumes than for cosmetic products. A grading system was developed to identify the various types of ylang ylang extract:

The most potent ylang ylang essential oil is called "Extra". This is the most expensive form of the substance and contains highest concentrations of lighter volatiles like linalool, geranyl acetate, and benzyl acetate. Ylang Ylang Extra is the most common form used in perfumery because of it’s refined and complex aroma. 

"First", "Second", and "Third" are subtler versions of the essential oil. As the hours of distillations go by, the concentration of oil contains increasing amounts of sesquiterpene hydrocarbons. These forms are often used to create heady middle notes in scented candles, soaps, and other fragrance products. 

After 10-20 hours of continuous distillation, the oil is called "Complete". Ylang Ylang Complete is a combination of all of the other four stages of distillation and contains the highest amount of heavier aromatic components like beta-caryophyllene and germacrene, making it deep, floral, and fruity. 

Benefits of Ylang Ylang in Aromatherapy

Ylang ylang is commonly used in aromatherapy to help improve memory and thinking skills, making it perfect for people working from home. The clean, airy qualities of its aroma aid in creating a focused and creative environment. Placing a ylang ylang scented candle in an office space is also a wonderful way to boost productivity. 

Its essential oils are also believed to improve mood, promote relaxation, lower blood pressure, and even fight infections. One study found that the smell of ylang ylang could help reduce anxiety and boost self-esteem, while another study found that ylang ylang has a sedative effect that can be used to help people relax and sleep better.

The exotic and sensual aroma of ylang ylang is also a popular aphrodisiac. In Indonesia, people spread these flowers on the bed of newlywed couples. It’s alluring warmth is sure to set the mood on date night! 

How Do You Pronounce “Ylang Ylang”?

Ylang Ylang is pronounced “e-lang e-lang.”    

It’s name comes from the Tagalog word “ilang”, which translates to “wilderness” and alludes to the way the flowers hang and flutter in the wind. 

Some claim that the name “ylang ylang” also means “flower of flowers,” although experts say that this is a mistranslation. But based on it’s addictive aroma, we say it’s certainly a very tempting theory!

Our Favorite Ylang Ylang Candle

Ylang ylang forms the heart (or middle note) of our "Lady Day" Luxury Candle, inspired by the effervescent Billy Holiday. This luxurious candle fragrance is vibrant and full-bodied, yet graceful and delicate — a compelling addition to the ambiance of your next wine night or dinner party. 

Learn more