Ylang-Ylang and Cananga Essential Oils: Photo Credit, ISP
Ylang-Ylang and Cananga Essential Oils: Photo Credit, ISP

Plants within the same botanical plant family are often closely related; sometimes they are so closely related that it is difficult to distinguish the differences. Two plants, and subsequent essential oils, that might be confusing to beginners to aromatherapy are ylang ylang and cananga. These two plants are so closely related, both in appearance and use, that it is worth taking a closer look.

Ylang Ylang or Cananga?

Both ylang ylang and cananga are members of the Annonaceae plant family; they also both belong to the same genus – Cananga. Even their species is confusing; both are odorata species. The small distinguishing feature that separates these two very similar plants is in the addition of the words var. genuina to ylang ylang’s botanical name and the addition of var. macrophylla to cananga’s botanical name. This is simply a “lower”rank than that of a species in the botanical ranking system, and it helps to separate out the subtle differences between each plant.

Botanical Profile of Ylang Ylang

Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuina) is a tall, tropical tree that has trademark yellow, pink, or mauve flowers. The flowers are distinguishable because they have drooping, narrow, petals – a bit like the tentacles of a sea star. Ylang ylang also has green, glossy leaves. The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of the fragrant flowers.

Botanical Profile of Cananga

Cananga (Cananga odorata var. macrophylla) is a also a tall, tropical tree which produces flowers almost identical to those of ylang ylang. In fact, the two plants are so similar, and produce such similar essential oils, that you will notice some suppliers (mistakenly) selling cananga essential oil as ylang ylang essential oil.

Difference Between the Essential Oils

Ylang ylang essential oil is a more floral oil than cananga essential oil. Therefore, those that find the heady aroma of ylang ylang essential oil too much may prefer the aroma of cananga essential oil. Note that the chemical components of each oil also vary.

Therapeutic Uses for Ylang Ylang Essential Oil

Ylang ylang essential oil has a number of uses including use for acne, insect bites, oily skin, irritated skin, depression, insomnia, and stress. Ylang ylang flowers are traditionally laid on the bed of newlyweds in Indonesia as they are believed to contain aphrodisiac properties. Use the essential oil in moderation as it can cause nausea and headaches.

Therapeutic Uses for Cananga Essential Oil

Cananga essential oil can be used for insect bites, skin care, anxiety, depression, and stress. Traditionally, cananga was used to treat infectious diseases, such as malaria. The essential oil may cause skin sensitization in sensitive individuals.

Learn More About Essential Oils with Sedona Aromatherapie

If you are interested in learning more about essential oils and how they are used in aromatherapy, consider one of the Sedona Aromatherapie home study aromatherapy courses. Visit the courses home page to learn more!


  • Aromaweb website, Cananga Essential Oil, accessed March 9, 2015

  • Lawless, Julia, 1995, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils UK: Thorsons

  • Tisserand, Robert, Young, Rodney, 2014, Essential Oil Safety (2nd Edition) UK: Churchill Livingstone (Elsevier)

  • Author is a UK-certified aromatherapist, approved NAHA aromatherapy educator, published aromatherapy author, aromatherapy business owner, and Chief Editor of the NAHA Journal.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email