Agarwood is known under many names in different countries. It is known as Chén-xīang, 沉香, in China or Trầm Hương in Vietnam and Jin-koh, 沈香, in Japan, all meaning “sinking incense” and alluding to its high density. Both agarwood and its resin distillate/extracts are known as Oud (عود) in Arabic, Middle East countries. In Europe it was referred to as Lignum aquila (eaglewood) or Agilawood. In Tibetan, it is known as ‘agaru’ and there are several species used in Tibetan Medicine for example, black eaglewood ‘arnag’. In Papua New Guinea it is called “ghara”. In Thailand, it is known as “Mai Kritsana” (ไม้กฤษณา). In Laos, known as “Mai Ketsana”. In India, Assamese language, it is called as “ogoru”. The Indonesian and Malay, call it “gaharu”.
Agarwood is the heartwood produced by Aquilaria trees which has several different species in Southeast Asia including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Papua New Guinea as the main producing countries. The resinous heartwood is fragrant and due to this reason it is highly valuable. It is also called Aloeswood/Oud or Gaharu, depending on user countries and species.
Traditionally In East Asia countries like Japan, Korea, China, most agarwood chips are used as religious incense offering and aromatic fragrance or aromatherapy. Also, agarwood are used as carvings and chanting/decorating beads in these countries.
The oil is mainly used in the Arab world where it is in high demand. It is by far the most precious essential oil with prices reaching as much as ten times that of India sandalwood (Santalum Album) oil, the King of all Sandalwood.
Agarwood is presently listed as a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to prevent extinction. Many countries now solve this problem by exploring cultivated agarwood which can improve harvest and reduce destruction to natural rain-forests.
The downside of cultivated agarwood versus wild natural agarwood is its inferior resin quality and content. This is due to the way and time the resinous agarwood is formed. It takes a 3 year old cultivated tree to start forming agarwood over 2 years to harvest. This is the main reason cultivated agarwood is usually traded in a much lower price compared to wild natural agarwood. But the demand for cultivated agarwood is less due to its limited applications. Cultivated agarwood is used mainly in incense making and in some case as perfumes, but not for food/medicinal applications.
Agarwood also known as ‘Sinking Wood’ ‘水沉’
Agarwood is also commonly known as ‘sinking wood’, ‘Chen Xiang’ (沉香) or ‘Tram Huong’ in Vietnamese. The word ‘沉’ or ‘Tram’ is pronounced as sinking. Throughout history, an aromatic material that can be sunk in water is called Agarwood. Why does agarwood sink? It is due to the resin which is denser than water that is in the agarwood material. The more concentrated the resin, the higher quality the agarwood, the heavier the agarwood.
To find a genuine Agarwood piece that can sink in the water is really rare these days especially the Aquilaria Crassna species (most valuable and precious Vietnam species). Most are fake or adulterated agarwood (impregnated by oil or plunged by metal piece).
The most commonly traded “sinking” agarwood these days belong to Aquilaria Malaccensis and Filaria which is almost black in colour due to the high resin content. As Aquilaria Crassna sinking agarwood (Vietnam species) is almost extinct in the wild jungle. The next choice, sinking Aquilaria Malaccensis and Filaria can be found more easily in Malaysia and Indonesia (Kalimantan), it can fetch a high price in the market as it is the best agarwood grade among the species.
How Agarwood is Formed?
Agarwood is the infected wood of the Aquilaria tree. When Aquilaria tree is damaged and infected with bacteria, a resin flows naturally from the tree to cover the wound, a natural defense mechanism of Aquilaria tree against infections. The Aquilaria tree can be damaged and get infected by lightning, thunder storm, humans, animals or insects in the forest. The resin will be slowly formed on the infected part of the tree over many years forming a resinous wood called Agarwood / Aloeswood / Oud / Eaglewood / Jinko or Gaharu.
Agarwood is considered very rare as not all Aquilaria trees produce resin and it is extremely difficult (or even impossible) to judge from the outside of a tree whether or not it is infected. Cutting the tree is the only way to find out whether the tree contains the resin. Only about 10% of wild mature Aquilaria tree can naturally form this resin. See also: Aquilaria crassna Pierre