Monday, May 23, 2011

What is Oud Anyway? And How Do You Pronounce It?

Aquilaria or agarwood trees
courtesy White Lotus Aromatics

The first thing most people say
when I tell them I've changed my business name from Urban Eden to Olive and Oud is, "Olive and...what's oud?" And the short answer is that oud is a precious aromatic dating back several thousand years, used in incense, perfume and traditional medicine, better known in Asia than in the U.S and Europe.
But the longer answer begins here, with a stand of aquilaria or agarwood trees.  These trees were native to Asia's tropical rainforests.  I say were because there is very little old growth agarwood left.  This is partly due to over  harvesting, but also partly due to the depletion of the rainforests themselves. 

insect boring hole in agarwood
courtesy White Lotus Aromatics

Oud essential oil is distilled from agarwood
trees.  But not every agarwood tree can produce oud.  Actually, less than 10% of wild agarwood trees can produce oud.  And that's because only agarwood trees which have been infected with particular microorganisms develop the resin which leads to the characteristic odor.  In the wild, these microorganisms enter through an insect's bore hole.  You can see such an insect--and above that the insect's boring hole--in the photograph to the right. 

Beneath that is a photo showing the heartwood of an infected agarwood tree.  The dark in the center of the wood comes from a resin the tree produces in response to the microorganisms.  It's from this resin that oud is distilled.


Papua New Guinea villagers learn to cultivate argarwood. 
Photo from: Robert Blanchette, University of Minnesota
Unfortunately, it's usually
impossible to tell from a tree's  appearance whether or not the heartwood contains this resin.  But because oud is incredibly valuable--2 ml of good oud essential oil sells for about $120-- agarwood trees have been indiscriminately cut down,
until there are few old growth trees

agarwood seedling nursery in India
courtesy White Lotus Aromatics

Now the harvesting of wild agarwood is prohibited.  However, people can still harvest cultivated agarwood, and have recently learned how to encourage young trees to develop the necessary resin.   
Agarwood cultivation in tandem with the prohibition on cutting wild agarwood is helping to preserve the last wild stands of mature trees while giving people an alternative, sustainable income.  Some programs teach indigenous people to cultivate young agarwood trees on biodiverse forest sites.  However, there is also a down side.  As Trygve Harris has blogged, in Laos there are areas where agarwood trees are common on land that has already been cleared.  She says that agarwood is also fairly common in people's yards.  So, she writes,  " is the wild itself that disappears, not the agarwood trees."    However, the cost of being certified to legally sell agarwood is prohibitive for people who were once able to sell just a tree or two from their property.

And what does oud smell like?  It's difficult to describe, partly because it doesn't smell like anything else I'm familiar with, and partly because there are different grades of oud, each with their own scents.  But it's deep, earthy, sensual, tenacious, incensey.  Trygve Harris writes amazing descriptions of oud (she uses an alternate spelling, oudh) in her product descriptions for her store, Enfleurage.  Here is her description of one of the six varieties she offers:

Rich ripe fruity top, with underlying dirty, earthy balsamic, teeth tingling mouth watering characteristic so indicative of lao oud, followed by an ethereal subtly sumptuous, ecstasy fomenting bliss. As this oil evolves, a rooted, deep dark forest sense enters, with an almost vetiver-like (almost) sense of roots, mud and water, further along peppery notes come out, with the sharpness almost immediately ceding to the warm black pepper tones, and a bit of barnyard behind it. By this point, the oudh makes a nest in the back of the throat, creating an entire vibrating orgasmic world between the throat and the top of the head. After this a tobacco note begins to show, and with the road now open, this oudh just opens and flows, like the highway as you drive through the desert at dawn.

Oh My!

Lastly, how the heck do you pronounce oud, anyway?  I asked a Lebanese friend, and he uttered a three-syllable coyote howl.  But I went here to listen to an audio recording.  According to Merriam Webster, it's a simple one-syllable word rhyming with food.  



  1. Wonderful blog! I love the new name even better than the last!
    hmmmm describing oud
    Trygve Harris....what she said except can I add "...a bit barnyard behind it full of animals their eyes widened with fear, restless and sweaty sensing a storm a-coming."?

  2. Thank you, Kait! So true: nothing polite or civilized or safe about oud.

  3. Thanks, Elise! Your Bellyflowers blog is so informative and so well-written, so that means a lot to me.

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