Agarwood or Gaharu as it is known in many Asian countries is a resinous heartwood that occurs in trees belonging to the genus Aquilaria. The Aquilaria tree is a fast-growing, subtropical forest tree, with a population range stretching from South Asia’s Himalayan foothills, throughout Southeast Asia, and into the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. It grows at elevations from a few meters above sea level to about 1000 meters, with approx. 500 meters being most ideal.
Aquilaria can grow on a wide range of soils, including poor sandy soil. Seedlings require a great deal of shade and water but will grow rapidly, producing flowers and seeds as early as four years old. At least fifteen species of Aquilaria are known to produce the much sought-after agarwood. In South Asia, particularly India, Aquilaria achalloga is found. Aquilaria malaccensis is mostly known in Thailand Malaysia and Indonesia, while Aquilaria crassna grows primarily in Indochina. A number of others are also known, such as Aquilaria grandfolia, Aquilaria chinesis etc., though these are relatively minor species for agarwood production.
Agarwood, the “Wood of the Gods” has been traded and highly coveted for thousands of years. The resinous wood is used as incense, for medicinal purposes, and pure resin in distilled form is used as an essential oil as well as a perfume component. Outside its native countries, it is most widely known in the Middle East, China, Taiwan, and Japan. A strong connection exists between use, religion, and curative properties, and elaborate traditional and religious ceremonies are known around the world. Faith healers in the Middle East use it at curative ceremonies, Japanese pilgrims donate flowers and agarwood oil to Shinto-Buddhist temples, and Vietnamese religious groups are obliged to bring agarwood to ceremonies at their temples in Mekong Delta communities.
Agarwood Essential Oil – Oud Oil
Oud Oil is one of the best-known and best-loved fragrance ingredients among consumers across the globe. Its rich scent and exotic associations have made it synonymous with oriental fragrances for centuries. But how many of us can say we are familiar with the process involved in obtaining oud, or how best to use it in fragrance creation?
Oud is one of the most expensive raw materials used in modern perfumery, top grade Oud Oil can cost over $50,000 per kilo. The current global market for agarwood is estimated to be worth over $12 billion and is growing rapidly.
The main reason why it is so expensive is its scarcity. Not only has the International Union for Conservation of Nature and CITES classified the Aquilaria tree species as critically endangered (its population has declined by more than 80% over the past 150 years), estimates also suggest that agarwood production occurs naturally to only 7% of the trees.
When the trees are healthy, agarwood has a light or pale color but when it is infected by disease, the process of infection creates a response to the attack resulting in a very dark and incredibly aromatic resin known as oleoresin. It is this rich dark resin which is so highly prized and from which agarwood essential oil is extracted.
In the wild, the production of this resin can take many years and like a good wine, the older the resin-the more prized it becomes. Because of its huge cost and extreme rarity in the wild, the trees are now cultivated and the resin is actually created by artificial infection and its essential oil extracted by water distillation.
There are many grades of Agarwood oil. The quality of grade is dependent on the grade of wood used and the length of distillation. Typically, the longer the distillation time the higher the grade.
It costs hundreds for 5ml and oud oil is typically sold by weight. Because of its rarity and mythic status in almost all of the worlds religions–it is extremely expensive. The scent is particularly sought after. It is believed to be the most powerful natural aphrodisiac.
Most Agarwood oud oil is purchased and consumed primarily by France, Saudi Arabia and Japan. There are no truly similar species or known sythetics that come close to the real scent. The fungal infection that helps create the resin makes its extract very unique.
Adulteration can and does happen on many levels. On the raw materials level–trees either uninfected or a lower grade of wood. Often it can even be a different but similar species of tree. Even among infected trees the method of infection (natural or stimulated) can have an effect on the compounds in the wood.
On the distillation level–the distiller can include the hydrosol with the essential oil or lie about the length of distillation.
On the distribution level–the oil is cut with other oils or synthetic chemicals are added to attempt to replicate the scent.
Resin-producing agarwood trees are endangered throughout their known habitat all across Southeast Asia. The main driving force, which initiated this project, was the recognition of unsustainable Aquilaria harvesting in natural forests that resulted in the near extinction of this tree genus in Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. Aquilaria crassna is now a protected species in Vietnam. Trade and harvesting restrictions will be virtually impossible to implement and enforce if no alternative is developed to forest-based harvesting. In addition, both in the short and long-term, a natural resource base needs to be maintained to supply present and future Aquilaria plantations with genetic source material in order to prevent plant decease, maintain diversity, and possibly improve resin production.
Development of synthetic agarwood substitutes usually arises when sustainable supplies of the natural product are not available. One of the first questions pursued when contemplating the pilot project was, “Is it possible to synthesize agarwood and agarwood oil?” The answer is a qualified no. Agarwood cannot be synthesized. Chemical substitutes are already available for perfume; these are cheap and constitute the least profitable end of the market. In addition, these products do not come close in emulating the natural product and thus do not pose a threat to producing non-synthetic agarwood products. The major chemical components responsible for the characteristic scent of agarwood products, 15-carbon chain compounds called sesquiterterpenes, can in principle be synthesized. However, these are very complicated structures that are extremely expensive to synthesize, which makes it commercially unattractive.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT AGARWOOD
- Religious texts were written on bark from agar trees and Srimanta Sankardev referred to agarwood as one of the divine trees with the ability to fulfill human desire.
- Burning Agarwood was called the ‘scent of Nirvana’ by The Lord Buddha.
- It is extensively mentioned in the Sanskrit Vedas as a favorite of Lord Krishna.
- Agarwood has played an important role in many religious traditions all over the world. It has been revered for millennia for its fragrance in religious ceremony and its incense burned at the burial of Jesus Christ.
- King Louis XIV had his clothing washed in water scented with agarwood.
- Agarwood smoke was used to scent the armor of Samurai warriors before heading into battle.
- In Genesis, agarwood is mentioned as the only tree from which Adam and Eve could take cuttings.
- Although it is not that well known in the West, agarwood has a rich history of medicinal use in many cultures. It has been used for centuries by physicians in Tibet, India, China and the Arab world to treat a range of physical and mental conditions.
- The Prophet Mohammed used Agarwood to perform fumigation rituals, a practice which is continued today by Orthodox.