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The scent of an infection: Why agarwood is the costliest wooden on the planet


Exquisite perfumes take inspiration from nature on a regular basis. All kinds of scents have been derived from all issues blooming and flowery — however generally, issues can get very bizarre. This is strictly the case with agarwood.

This alluring and sought-after scent comes not from a blooming flower or a blossoming tree, however reasonably from an infection. As ironic because it sounds, this odor, which is usually a standing image for the rich, comes from mildew.

Agarwood-producing tree. Image credit: Blaise Droz.

Wood for the gods

Agarwood, one of many costliest forms of wooden on the planet, produces a mesmerizingly heavy, musky, and balsamic aroma alongside the woody notes that make it one in every of a sort. Its oil is being utilized in world-class perfumes and is offered at very excessive costs. Agarwood chips may be offered for as a lot as $25,000 per kilogram (2.2 kilos), and, in its purest type, agarwood oil can price as much as $80,000 per liter.

Agarwood has left a mark in lots of historical cultures and was described because the aromatic product of wealth and luxurious as early as 1,400 BC. For centuries, solely kings and excessive officers might afford it, and it was recognized far and extensive as a logo of wealth. Not solely that, however agarwood was additionally part of many momentous spiritual occasions because it was allegedly used on the burial of Christ. Agarwood was additionally the popular fragrance of the prophet Muhammad and was used for choices in Buddhism and Taoism. Agarwood can be extremely revered within the seminal texts of Hinduism. But this aroma has a darkish facet.

The scent of stress

Aloeswood, eaglewood, or oud, as some might name it, will not be your on a regular basis tree. This marvel is simply confined to the pockets of South and Southeast Asia rising as much as elevations of 1,000 meters (3,280 toes) above sea stage, with 500 meters (1,640 toes) being probably the most preferrred for its optimum progress. It belongs to the genus Aquilaria that are usually fast-growing timber, producing flowers and seeds at as early as 4 years previous. 

Flowers on an Aquilaria tree. Image credit: Vinayaraj.

Not each Aquilaria species is identical and never each tree is assured to provide this coveted aroma. In actuality, the formation of the aromatic agarwood will depend on complicated biotic and bodily stress being induced on the timber. Yes, stress is what makes this wooden additional expensive. 

Natural, wholesome Aquilaria timber are pale and odorless. But that modifications in the event that they develop into infested by a selected kind of fungus referred to as Phialophora parasitica. Just like some other organism, Aquilaria activates its protection system to push back these international microbes. It does this by producing a stress-induced resin referred to as aloes, which afterward was discovered to present off a signature aroma.

This darkish and moist resin slowly infiltrates the contaminated heartwood within the hopes of halting the unfold of an infection. This modifications the colour of the heartwood to a darker tone — and it’s any such wooden that is named agarwood. You can thank this mildew for turning the tree from a reasonably uninteresting species to a highly-coveted commodity.

Agarwood and its merchandise: Aquilaria timber rising in a plantation situated in Assam, India (A); resin impregnated stems are seen (B), which, when chiseled and cleaned, reveal the resinous parts (C); the wooden is distilled to provide the aromatic agarwood oils (D). Image credit: Naziz et al (2019).

“Agarwood is sort of uncommon, since burdened, diseased, and malformed timber are most popular over wholesome, luxuriant ones,” write the authors of a scientific evaluation on agarwood. “In reality, the contaminated heartwood of agar is the costliest wooden on the planet.”

Once the connection was made between the fungus and the scent, it didn’t take lengthy to determine that this may very well be used to provide robust nice fragrances, and native foresters and skilled biologists can distinguish between a wholesome and contaminated Aquilaria on sight,. In reality, cultures from Japan to Vietnam to China and South America have used agarwood-based fragrances for hundreds of years. Numerous religions cherish it, and numerous historic and legendary texts place nice emphasis on its properties.

But harvesting agarwood will not be a simple course of.

Harvesting it’s painstaking and requires abilities and expertise. The darkish fragrant portion must be separated from the wholesome portion, a course of during which it’s carved out by hand. These wooden chips are usually what get offered out there and are generally used as incense. Extracting the oil from the wooden is a distinct course of employed by scent producers. Because they’re so costly and laborious to acquire, each the picket chips and the oil are generally adulterated by many sellers, which brings down the worth, but additionally reduces the standard of agarwood. Also, since a number of Aquilaria species produce agarwood, they’re typically combined collectively.

Smells like extinction

As you could have guessed by now, it takes very particular circumstances to provide agarwood. Add this to the truth that a number of agarwood-producing species are threatened by deforestation and overharvesting, and it’s not laborious to determine what would occur.

Agarwood chips. Image through Wiki Commons.

Natural agarwood is uncommon and resulting from unsustainable manufacturing and commerce — and now, it has develop into rarer. All sorts of Aquilaria timber at the moment are categorized as critically endangered as their inhabitants sharply declined by 80% over the past 150 years. Researchers have developed methods that artificially inoculate agarwood with microbes to provide the distinct aroma, however the demand for the pure one remains to be rocketing.

As of 2013, the present world marketplace for agarwood is estimated to be within the vary of US$6-8 billion, and is rising quickly. According to some estimates, in 2018, the market had grown to $30 billion.

Unsurprisingly, this implies the hunt for agarwood is arduous, and consultants say that only 2% of the wild timber are absolutely contaminated to provide agarwood naturally, which leaves these species on very skinny floor.

Concern over the demand for agarwood has led to the inclusion of all of the agarwood-producing species within the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) protected listing. The assortment of agarwood from pure forests is now unlawful, and a number of other plantations have been established, particularly in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. These plantations are used each for industrial functions and for reintroduction.

It’s an unlikely journey that introduced these timber to the forefront of worldwide commerce, and because it typically occurs, this hasn’t actually been a optimistic factor for the timber themselves. Thankfully, with cautious conservation and artificial replacements, the rising demand for agarwood received’t threaten tree populations any extra.

Agarwood isn’t practically the one pure useful resource being pushed to extinction by commerce. A examine has estimated that 30% of threats to species are pushed by worldwide commerce, and most issues aren’t practically as costly as agarwood.

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