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Cultivated Agarwood

Cultivated Agarwood

"...only rarely have we stood back and celebrated our soils as something beautiful and perhaps even mysterious. For what other natural body, worldwide in its distribution, has so many interesting secrets to reveal to the patient observer" --- Les Molloy

Dear Friends-

Today I received the first small consignment(3 ounces) of hydrodistilled agarwood from cultivated trees. It is a really lovely amber colored material which at room temperature is a solid, soft waxy textured essence. It quickly becomes a flowable liquid when warmed in heated water.

Three years ago when Tajul first sent me samples of the cultivated agarwood I liked it but did not find it as attractive as the wild harvested material so held off in stocking it. But in that period of time his family has gained a good deal of expertise in distilling it resulting in a fine essence.

Its olfactory characteristics are excellent. It has a very very rich radiant and tenacious sweet precious woods bouquet with none of the smokiness sometimes found in the hydrodistilled oil from wild harvested material. The unique agarwood bouquet that forms the heart of all true agarwood oils is present in a sublime form. The oil from the wild harvested material is in an overall sense slightly more complex because the resin has had a chance to form over a period of 60 years whereas the resin from the cultivated trees has formed in 10-13 years.

If one puts a small dab of the oil on their wrist it continues to radiate its beauty for many hours. This morning before leaving for my pruning work I did just that and all during my work up until this afternoon I have been inside the aura of agarwood.

Perhaps of greatest importance is that the cultivated agarwood is a lovely essence which is a product of sustainable agriculture whereas the resin from wild harvested trees is now very rare to find because most of them were illegally and indiscriminatley harvested years ago. A small amount of wild harvested agarwood is still procurable legally from forest department land or from tribal properties in Assam, Tripura, and Meghalaya but it is only available extremely rarely and the cost has become stratospheric. The oil distilled from the cultivated trees while still expensive is less than half the cost($450 per ounce) of the oil from wild harvested trees which is generally over $1100 an ounce.

The story of how the cultivated agarwood oil has come to us forms the central part of this newsletter. Many of you may remember the earlier 5 part report on agarwood which concerned my visit to Assam in 2001. There I was able to see first hand a true miracle of hard work and vision in the form of thousands of agarwood trees/Aquilaria agallocha growing in a specific region of the country which had earlier seen the indiscriminate and illegal harvesting of the wild harvested species. Mr. Tajul and his family started this project of reforestation about 13 years ago and now their work is beginning to bare fruit with the production of agarwood essential oil from sustainably harvested trees.
Their work is one of the great inspirations of our time in that they took up this project within their own family, using their own financial resources-but with an eye towards bringing prosperity to the people that populate Assam through a natural resource that has been loved and appreciated for many centuries by people who love the aromatic treasures of the earth. For some reason in that particular area; the soil, the micro-organisms that exist there, the insects that live in the Agarwood trees, the natural rainfall, the warm humid climate, etc are in a unique relationship that allows the radiantly beautiful agarwood/oud resin to form in natural way.

"A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the earth's hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness." --- Wallace H. Fuller, in Soils of the Desert Southwest, 1975.

Water, thou hast no taste, no color, no odor; canst not be defined, art relished while ever
mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fillest us with a
gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944), Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939

She sat down in a weed patch, her elbows on her knees, and kept her eyes
on the small mysterious world of the ground. In the shade and sun of grass
blade forests, small living things had their metropolis.
- Nancy Price

Agarwood Journal Quotes

Returning to the guest house we had our breakfast and then proceeded to our first agarwood planation in the company of Tajul and brothers. As we penetrated deeper into the countryside on narrow unpaved rural roads, the scenery around us became every more beautiful. Gradually we left behind even the small vestiges of modern civilization we had encountered. We seldom saw another diesel or gasoline powered vehicle. Mostly people traveled by foot or bicycle. Indeed unless one knows where one is going on these backways it would not be easy to reach there destination because there is no map that one can follow to reach there destination. Much of the Indian countryside is composed of such unmarked paths but as one would never travel into the interior without a local guide it works just fine.

The first plantation we visited was two years old. The ten acre plot was immaculately laid out with regularly spaced agarwood trees between which a patchouli intercrop was to be found. The shimmering glossy green slender leaves where held on slim stems attached to lithe branches and supple straight trunks. The bark is light in color. The overall appearance of these young trees is very pleasing indicating that they are not only valuable potential bearers of the agarwood resin but beautiful in their own right as ornamental trees.

The trees were raised from the seed of trees that had borne good amounts of pure agarwood in hopes that the new generation would have the same capability. About 1 year after being raised in nursery conditions the trees are planted into the field where they begin growing rapidly. A mature agarwood tree can eventually reach a height of 20 meters with a girth of up to 2.5 meters.

The area where the current plantation was set up was once rich in agarwood trees but as mentioned before overexploitation of the wild species led to their total disappearance from the region. Tajul felt that this would be a good region to reestablish plantations as environmental conditions which once favored the trees grown in natural stands would most likely favor them under cultivated ones. It is a sun loving tree and seldom is found in dense forests. It needs good drainage and deep acid soils to attain its best growth but can also be found in shallow soil sitting over rocky beds. Since the trees were once found in abundance in the same region, Tajul reasoned that the soil might still carry an abundance of the mico-organisms that cause the oleoresin to form once the tree is infected. He also felt that the insect which first bores into the tree creating the proper environment for the fungus to grow might still thrive in the vicinity. As it turned out his reasoning was correct.
The trees being cultivated under organic conditions are nurtured with organic compost, naturally falling leaves and the harvested weeds which grow rapidly in the benign climate of Assam. One months time is enough for weeds to overcome an area under cultivation because the humidity and regular rains provide prime conditions for the growth of both desired and undesired plants. Having the patchouli planted as an intercrop also inspires the workers to keep on top of the weeding of unwanted material.

We spent several hours in this benign environment absorbing the vibratory radiation of the area. There is no substitute for being near the plants one is trying to appreciate and understand. They have their own unique language and are only to willing to impart their knowledge to anyone who approaches them with respect and veneration. In the world of natural essences as we know it in the West there is some danger that we may forget how these precious aromatic liquids come into being because our lives are often lived far from the production centers. Even if we cannot be near such environments we need to remember that the oils or extracts arise out of a series of intricate interactions between humans and the environments in which the plants grow. This includes birds, reptiles, insects, animals and many other forces seen and unseen. But if we can develop in our hearts a profound appreciation of the time and energy that is required to manifest the oils, then this spirit of gratitude will flow into the oil increasing its beauty.

After an enjoyable stay at the first plantation we moved onto one that was established 4 years previously. Here we were able to see several trees which had recently been bored into by the insect which plays an important role in causing the oleoresin to form. They were active at the time of our visit and one could see little pellets of pulp tumbling out of the trunk of the young trees. Our hosts told us this was a really unique thing to be able to witness first hand. The insects come when they will and bore into the trees according to their own plan. Only a few trees will be selected by them. Tajul later gifted me a piece of a wood which showed a cross section of the tunnel made made by the insect into the trunk so I could show others how the whole process of infestation begins.

For those who may not know how the precious resin is created in the tree, a few notes on this may be of value here. The agarwood tree (Aquilaria agallocha) is a native of Assam and other countries like New Guinea, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, etc. Different species grow in each region, each producing a precious resin that is valued for its rich aromatic properties. The resin of the trees of Assam is considered by many to be the finest in the world.

The resin is created in the tree when it is infected by a certain fungus or group of fungi. At least on the plantations of Tajul's family it appears that the conditions for this infestation occur when the a larvae of a stem-borer belonging to the Lepidoptera family bores into the trunk and creates a vertical tunnel in zigzag pattern. The surfaces of the tunnel become the initial sites of the infestation which later spreads on all sides so that the interior of the tree becomes saturated to a greater or lesser degree with the fungi. It has also been reported that the fungi can enter the tree through mechanical or natural injuries to the branches or trunk but actual observations of Tajul and family are that the insect must first enter the tree before the infestation starts at least in the case of the younger trees.

Due to these infections an oleoresin begins to form which is initially brown in color. It appears as streaks in the tissue. With the passage of time the density of the infestations can increase with corresponding production of oleoresin which begins to become odiferous. As the oleoresin ages it begins to change from brown to black. Dense pockets form particularly in the bole of the tree with streaking occurring in tissues in other zones. The same tree can have a wide range of oleoresin varying from hues of brown to black as well which can be found in dense pockets and lightly streaked tissues. Eventually the fungus created oleoresin leads to the death of the tree provided the tree is not harvested before that event occurs.

End of Journal Quotes

During our stay we were able to visit nursuries devoted almost exclusively to growing agarwood trees on small land holdings in the surrounding area. Many farmers have planted small orchards around their homes because the trees are very beautiful in their own right.
We also visited several of their family owned distilleries where the distillation of the cultivated agarwood was taking place.
From the beginning to end of our visit we were treated like old and dear friends. It was one of the most enchanting and sweet experiences of life in a very ancient and beautiful region of the world that is relatively unspoiled by modern technology.
If you did not receive the full report and wish to read it kindly inform me and I will send it along by separate e-mail.

I look back with gladness to the day when I found the path to
the land of heart's desire, and thank Fate ceaselessly with a
loud voice that she did not permit town to sap all the years
away while the heart was turning to wind-voices and
flower-faces and the hands of kindly earth.
- Mrs. George Cran, The Garden of Ignorance, 1913)