History & Use of Agarwood

Agarwood is also commonly known as aloeswood and is a highly aromatic resinous wood from the Aquilaria tree. The aquilaria tree is native to India, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Growing up to 40 meters high and 60 centimeters in diameter, these trees can have quite a presence. Aquilaria trees typically bear fragrant white flowers. The tree resin from these trees is highly sought after for incense crafting, and is used predominantly in higher-end Japanese incense, although it is sometimes used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as well.

The fragrant resin is naturally formed due to a immune response the trees have to a common fungus. Resin may also be produced by intentionally wounding the trees, but such resin would be considered to be of inferior quality.

There is a common misconception that agar is only produced when an Aquilaria tree becomes buried under the ground for hundreds of years.

This legend originates from an ancient Chinese book on incense. However today most agarwood comes from infected trees which are still standing, despite decaying.

There is a particularly famous piece of agarwood called Ranjatai which was presented by Komyo Emperor for Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, 756 A.D.

This piece of agarwood is often displayed in the national museum of Nara, alongside other Shosoin treasures. Dr. Yoneda from Osaka University, a leading expert on agarwood believes this piece likely originated from Laos or Vietnam.

Varieties of Aloeswood

Traditional Japanese classifications for aloeswood include: Kyara, Manaban, Rakoku, Manaka, Sumotara, and Sasora.

  • Kyara is the most well known variety of aloeswood and is believed to form in either Vietnam or Cambodia.
  • Rakoku has a smooth smell similar to chandan (sandalwood). Scent is slightly bitter.
  • Manaka is said to have a lighter, bitter, more enticing scent. Scent disappears quickly.
  • Manaban has a sweeter unrefined aroma then other aloeswood. May leave a residue.
  • Sumotara A bit of a sour smell. Many consider it to be a lower grade aloeswood.
  • Sasora is often mistaken for Kyara but her a lighter, sour scent which does not linger quite as long.

Scents used to describe aloeswood

  • Sweet – A sweet scent similar to honey.
  • Sour – A sour scent resembling plums or acidic fruit.
  • Hot – Similar to roasted hot peppers.
  • Salty – A scent similar to roasting fresh seaweed, or the ocean.
  • Bitter – Bitter or medicinal.
Aloeswood Poetry

“…Soft, soft I have made my bed, spread it with embroidered tapestries of Egyptian wool; freshly scented is that bower of mine with Myrrh and Aloes and Cinnamon. Come, let us lose ourselves in dalliance, all the night through, let us enjoy the long desired embrace…”

“What wealth of grace is here… no lack of Spikenard or Saffron, of Calamus or Incense tree, of Myrrh… of Aloes or any rarest perfume.”
– Solomon: Song of songs

“I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come let us take our fill of love. Until morning; let us delight ourselves with love.”
– Proverbs 7:17-18

This article was last revised on 02/28/2020.

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