This article is based up my personal experiences involving numerous trips to Laos and India starting in 1985. I have been interested in aromatics my entire life and have started and then owned Enfleurage, a small, New York based company specializing in Aromatics from the Natural World, since 1996.
I am not a scientist, and this work is in no way meant to represent my findings as scientific in any way. It is also not meant to be indicative of any opinions I may have on agarwood from places other than Laos and India, as those are my areas of interest. While I have explored agarwood in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, my visits were swift in passing and not objective as my contacts are limited in those countries and therefore any observations would be merely parroting what I’ve been told with no meaningful analysis. In both Laos and India I am well-invested.
The road through Southern Laos, from Vientiane south through Paxsan and Pakading, Savannakhet to Pakse, is lined with agarwood plantations, almost all of them sickly, the trees meagre and frail, their leaves denuded by caterpillars.
There are a few reasons why agarwood plantations have fallen out of popularity and why people are selling the trees for next to nothing, sometimes even burning them, planting anything in their place.
One reason is the caterpillars, which starting attacking the young foliage with gusto a couple of years ago and could be a culprit for a 40% reduction in productivity. Yield is down so far that at the distillery we visited, which is trying to make actual Oud oil instead of its poor cousin, Boyah, a 180 kilo batch of wood made 10 ml of oil only. The yield should have been 10 times that, which is still minuscule, considering the amount of time and fuel it takes--altogether perhaps 60 days soaking and 10 days distillation, all using firewood. At 10 ml, even the astronomical price I paid for it couldn’t account for the production cost.
Another, even bigger reason for the worthlessness of agarwood trees these days is the lack of a market. I know that sounds crazy for a plant that was just declared an endangered species a few years ago and today enjoys a trendiness among hip small perfume houses, but let me explain.
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