General Description / Cultural Significance
Mauritius is an island country five hundred miles east of Madagascar, surrounded by coral reefs. Little original forest has survived the clearing of land during colonization for sugarcane ranges, vegetable farms, and tea fields, now used by local Mauritians for economy and for their own daily life. The island is rich with hundreds of indigenous plant species as well as many brought over by French colonists exploring the Indian Ocean Islands in the eighteenth century. Many of the plants they carried with them were, at the time, considered simple scientific curiosities. But one of these would go on to serve the island of Mauritius as a highly cultivatable and extremely profitable export. More than this, the aromatic plant proved to be a powerful medicinal resource for locals who came to grow it and understand it over the next century. This was the fragrant, beautiful Ylang-Ylang, Cananga odorata.
Ylang-Ylang thrives in the fertile, volcanic soil of Mauritius and enjoys the country’s hot, humid climate. It blooms almost year-round, most commonly on plantations grown for essential oil production or as an ornamental plant in yards and landscaping. Its strongly perfumed flowers peek through the green foliage in explosions of bright yellow, their sweet aromatics filling the tropical air. Seeds are collected from the Ylang-Ylang plant between June and July after which they are planted in special nursery beds before the rain season, protected from the sun, and watered regularly. Once the seedlings reach appropriate height, they are transplanted into fields where they grow into medium to large trees that blanket the Mauritius landscape. Mostly women harvest the Ylang-Ylang flowers which go on to be distilled and exported to countries around the world seeking to use the plant’s essential oil for all manner of reasons.
Throughout the tropical islands of the Indian Ocean, Ylang-Ylang flowers are dried for use to treat malaria and fresh flowers are pounded into a paste for treating asthma. Flowers and bark are jointly utilized as a cure for pneumonia and stomach aches while the flower’s scent is channeled to enhance arousal and joy during intimacy. The plant is also used as a laxative and mixed into a decoction which treats fevers, ulcers, rheumatism, and gout. Ylang-Ylang has been used in Mauritius as a household insect repellant and its yellow leaves are traditionally rubbed against itching skin to reduce irritation. The plant blossoms’ aroma is known for its anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects, while also helping to lower high blood pressure in those who utilize it for aromatherapy. The plant exhibits a complex web of bioactivity which includes anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-diabetic activities.
Today, there is no shortage of products Ylang-Ylang oil is found in: it scents massage oils, moisturizers, perfumes, hair products, and candles. The plant has been so thoroughly researched that, now, four grades of Ylang-Ylang have been developed and are commercially available, used widely to produced high-grade perfumes. Contemporary research has confirmed what indigenous Indian Ocean islanders have known for centuries, that the larvicidal, ovicidal, and insecticidal properties of Ylang-Ylang are effective in controlling mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria and dengue. As temperatures warm and the country of Mauritius sees more increased rainfall and flooding, conditions become increasingly riper for illnesses such as these to flourish. Ylang-Ylang will serve as a necessary, accessible, and natural treatment for Mauritians as global warming threatens public health, agriculture, and life at large across the country.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
Particularly strong floods have destroyed city infrastructure, taken lives, and destabilized the land on which cash crops and precious plants such as Ylang-Ylang grow. Ecologists predict that Mauritius will experience even more aggressive cyclones, heavier rains, and increased flooding as the environmental impacts of climate change worsen. Due to deforestation, the country is covered by less than two percent forest, leaving little to no natural defense against rushing waters as they cascade down mountains, through farms, and into homes. These floods are followed by droughts that, recently, have lasted longer than two years.
Mauritius has experienced an extreme decline in endemic birds which historically fed on flower buds, flowers, fruits, and leaves. This is one lens through which the declining health of the country’s ecosystems becomes obvious, a reality also seen through its plant species which now grow shorter, flower sporadically and out of season, and are disappearing completely. Luckily, Ylang-Ylang does not only exist in the wild. It is protected by the island’s long tradition of cultivation. However, the flower still relies on the insects that pollinate it which have existed in a system of natural harmony with the birds, plants, trees, land, and seasons of Mauritius. Until now.
Ylang-Ylang requires constant watering, and even more water to fuel the distillation process necessary to extract the plant’s oils. Ylang-Ylang distillation also relies on makeshift stills that consume large portions of timber, contributing to deforestation. By this fact, the plant’s cultivation and essential oil production is being questioned for its sustainability. Initiatives for more sustainable development in the Ylang-Ylang export sector have begun in places such as the Comoros Islands but should just as seriously be conducted in Mauritius as well. The cultivation of Ylang-Ylang is one of many agricultural ventures made vulnerable by climate change which Mauritians depend on for their livelihoods and as an invaluable connection to their traditions and culture. Although Ylang-Ylang has invasive characteristics, this impact has not been reported in Mauritius, where its propagation is still viable.
Kenanga (Malay, Malaysia)
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