Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gaharu/Oudh or Agarwood - the scented wood of the rain forests

An essential oil is any concentrated, hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants, which are called aromatic herbs or aromatic plants. They are also known as volatile or ethereal oils, or simply as the "oil of" the plant material from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. The term essential indicates that the oil carries distinctive scent (essence) of the plant, not that it is an especially important or fundamental substance. Essential oils do not as a group need to have any specific chemical properties in common, beyond conveying characteristic fragrances. Essential oils have aaromatic, medicinal and therapeutic values and are therefore treasured.

Tree is an important source of essential oil too. Sandalwood oil, frankincense and myrrh are obtain from trees. They are resins -- dried tree sap -- that come from trees of the genus Santalum (sandalwood), Boswellia (frankincense) and Commiphora (myrhh). The last two are common to Somalia. The way that people collect the sap of Boswellia and COmmiphora is similar to the way people collect rubber-tree sap or pine-tree sap. Cutting the tree's bark causes the sap to ooze out of the cut. The sap used to create both frankincense and myrrh comes slowly and is allowed to dry on the tree. The hardened sap is collected and used as frankincense and myrrh.

Both in the time of the three wise men and today, frankincense and myrrh are commonly used to create incense. You mix frankincense with things like spices, seeds and roots to create different aromas. Traditionally, you burn the powdered incense with charcoal in a small stand.

I am going to write about a type of resin obtained from the wood of gaharu (genus Aquilaria) which is found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia.

Nature is wonderful. The resin is only produced in wounded tree as response to infection by fungi.

Gaharu or Agarwood is a highly prized incense that is extremely rare. It has at least a 3000-year history in the Middle East, China and Japan. There are also references to agarwood in the literature of India and France, and even in the Old Testament of the Bible. Agarwood remains today the world's most expensive incense. The value of agarwood shipped out of Singapore alone each year has been estimated to exceed $1.2 billion. The resin is used by Traditional Chinese, Unanai, Ayuravedic, and Tibetan physicians. Used medicinally, agarwood is a remedy for nervous disorders such as neurosis, obsessive behavior, and exhaustion. Agarwood is highly psychoactive and is used in spiritual rituals. Many religious groups prize it as a meditation incense, to calm the mind and spirit. In Ayuravedic medicine it is used to treat a wide range of mental illness and to drive evil spirits away. In Japan, it is considered by many to be sacred, and is used to anoint the dead. In Buddhism, it serves as a major ingredient in many incense mixtures, and it is considered to be one of the three integral incenses, together with sandalwood and cloves.

In the past, gaharu has been collected from the rain forests in the wild. As the rain forests dwindle, so is the supply of gaharu. Given its high price, growing of gaharu in plantations is always a challenge, more so that only some trees produces gaharu while others do not. In recent years, there have been success with gaharu cultivation through innoculation method in Vietnam which later extended to Thailand and Indonesia. I understand that there are now starting to plant gaharu on commercial scale in Malaysia. The innoculation procedure has also been patent in the United States.

Useful link on gaharu cultivation.

For those interested in gaharu or agrwood from Borneo, please email


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