Rare and costly fragrances

(No.11, Vol.2, Nov 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Agarwood, aloeswood, eaglewood, jinkoh and gaharu are all names for the world’s most valuable incense. In the past, old growth tropical rain forest trees were indiscriminately cut to find the resin, which was usually hidden within the centre of only a few old trees. Today, in many countries of Southeast Asia where the tree was once native, it has become rare due to increased harvesting.

Agarwood section

The resinous wood or oil extracted from the inside of some trees is extremely valuable, since it is used during Buddhist, Shinto and Islamic cultural activities as well as being an important ingredient in many traditional medicines.₁
In Vietnam, during feudal times, agarwood was a must in offering ceremonies, throne-taking ceremonies, and prince-recognising ceremonies.
Agar oil was also used to mummify the corpses of kings, emperors and royal family members. Vu Ngoc Lo wrote in the book Precious Oil Trees: ‘In 1958, the Ministry of Culture excavated three tombs in Thanh Hoa and Thai Binh provinces. The remains in the tombs were three empresses who lived about 200-300 years ago. Their bodies were still intact. The wrapping cloth and clothes were still in good shape. One of the corpses held a small bag containing betel leaves and nuts, which were stilll fragrant. The fragrance of pine tree resin and agarwood still lingered on the corpses, even after being washed five times.’
In traditional medicine, agarwood is a precious kind of medicine used to treat stomachache, nausea, asthma, urine retention and constipation. Agarwood is also used in the production of perfume.
In Vietnam’s central region, lots of people make their living by searching for agarwood. During the reign of the Nguyen, kings sent out parties into the forest in search of agarwood every year from February until June.
The agarwood hunters had their own rules, restrictions and slang. Before entering a forest, they held a ceremony to give offerings to the forest god and wild tigers. While in the forest, they had restrictions on which words they could use, and ways of sitting and walking. They couldn’t use the same words every day. They could never sit with their legs crossed.
Agarwood comes from the aquilaria tree (cây dó), which was officially given a scientific name based on the samples collected by the French botanist Jean Baptiste Louis Pierre on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island and Aral Mountain in Cambodia’s province of Samrong-tong in May, 1870. He called it Aquilaria crassna Pierre based on its Cambodian name krasna.₂

Aquilaria flowers

Aquilaria fruit and seeds

Mr Blanchette in plantation
Photos: Courtesy of Robert A. Blanchette, Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Minnesota, USA

Aquilaria is a fast-growing, archaic tropical forest tree, which occurs in South and Southeast Asia. Trees grow very fast, and start producing flowers and seeds as early as four years old. At least 15 species of Aquilaria trees are known to produce the much sought-after agarwood. Doctor Nguyen Huy Son, Forestry Products Research Centre, Forest Science Institute of Vietnam, in a document presented at a seminar on agarwood production held by Vietnam Agarwood Association late 2010 in Ho Chi Minh City, that six species of agarwood trees exist in Vietnam: A. crassna Pierre ex Lecomte, A. banaensis P.H. Ho, A. baillonii Pierre ex Lecomte, A. rugosa L.C Kiet and Kesler, A. sinensis and A. malaccensis. [A. means aquilaria]
Aquilaria crassna is listed as an endangered species in Vietnam, and A. malaccensis is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union and International Union for Conservation of Nature.₃
Across the globe, the highest price of 1kg of agarwood can rise as high as $7,600, whereas the price of 1kg of calambac can rise up to $330,000. The extraordinary price and the lack of responsibility in the management of natural resources, has caused the near extinction of agarwood in Vietnam.
Mr Hoang Canh, vice chairman of Vietnam Agarwood Association, said during a seminar on agarwood production in late 2010 that production of agarwood by plantation-grown trees has not brought expected results and sometimes caused loss to growers.
‘The amount of cultivated agarwood produced is relatively small, but with a diminished supply from natural forests, cultivated agarwood from sustainable plantations of Aquilaria trees will be the only source for the future,’ said Professor Robert A. Blanchette, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Minnesota in the US.
₂-‘Agarwood’, Nguyen Hien - Vo Van Chi, published in 1991, Science and Technology Publishing House.

Compiled by Le Duc Tan
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