This is a lightning presentation I gave to my Eucalyptus colleagues at Santa Barbara during our all-hands meeting. I think this is an interesting presentation and would like to share it with the rest of my friends. For those who prefer to read Chinese I have an older version in Chinese that was created in 2009, and the content in that version is quite similar to this one.
Aquilaria refers to a collection of 15 species of trees in the Thymelaeaceae. These are trees that grow in the rain forests in Southeast Asia. The heights of the trees are quite different, depending on the actual species and the geographic location they grow, but usually fall within the range of 6 to 20 meters. I myself have seen trees as tall as 30 meters in the south part of Thailand, and I assure you that these are very very old trees.
From this slide you can also see the flowers, the fruit, and the seeds.
As said just now, these trees usually occur in Southeast Asia, especially within the yellow square on this map. This includes the south part of China, the north part of India, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia.
Aquilaria is considered as the major source of agarwood. By saying agarwood we usually refer to the resinous material produced by the Aquilaria trees. Some people think that agarwood is the heart wood of the tree, but actually it is not. The Aquilaria tree produces epoxy-like material to protect itself when it get wounded, either by the force of nature such as birds and worms or by human beings. As time goes by the concentration of this epoxy-like material gets richer, and the color of the wound becomes darker. And then people harvest the dark and resinous part from the tree, which is called agarwood.
Agarwood is well known by its fragrance, which is very appealing and pleasing. Therefore it is widely used in religion rituals among the buddhist world and the islamic world. Further more, agarwood has a decent hardness so that people make it into prayer beats or sculptures. It is believe that if you wear such prayer beats or host such sculptures you will receive special blessing from the Buddha, or Shiva, or some other god or goddess.
Agarwood can also be further processed to produce essential oil. The oldest — and also the simplest — method to produce essential oil is water distillation. You crash the wood into powder, boil it along with water, cool down the steam, and separate the oil from water. In the market agarwood essential oil is very expensive, way more expensive then gold. Therefore, the majority of the so-called “agarwood oil” available in the market are usually highly diluted, or even fake.
The essential oil produced can be used for aromatic therapy, body massage, as well as the “magic portion” in high end cosmetics.
I myself have tried this process, and it worked pretty well. The picture on the top-left side was actually taken by myself in my lab several years ago.
As you can imagine, agarwood is only an extremely small part of the Aquilaria tree. When people harvest agarwood, they usually cut down the whole tree, get rid of the white wood, extract the dark part, and abandon the rest. This is especially true when the harvest practice is done in an illegal way — and it usually is. As the demand for agarwood increases, the number of standing Aquilaria trees decreases rapidly. Currently, all 15 species of Aquilaria are considered as endangered species, according to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Starting from 2007, I myself have been actively involved in the preservation and protection of the endangered Aquilaria species. I have a small farm in Hainan, which is a big island in the very south part of China. This is a screenshot from Google Maps, and it shows where I and my family live. In this small garden I have about 200 Aquilaria trees, and I have identified 6 different species out of them. Also, I am in the process of collecting Aquilaria seeds from other countries (legally, of course) and cultivate them in my own farm, so that I can preserve more species in the future.