Flower Power: Royal Oil

Traditional skin treatment from the Pacific

By Michael J. Balick

Photography by Mitch Mandel


royal oilFor more than a decade, I have studied the traditional uses of plants—the field known as ethnobotany—in Micronesia, a very remote area of the Pacific Ocean where people still use plants for many aspects of their daily lives, as their ancestors have done for centuries. A traditional way of keeping skin moist, protecting it from the sun, and maintaining its beauty is to cover the body with freshly made coconut oil, perfumed with essences from local plants—flowers, leaves, and even certain aromatic woods. I was fortunate enough to learn the process of making scented oil on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei from Maria Raza, an affable woman originally from the island of Kosrae and widely recognized as the maker of the best-perfumed coconut oil in her area.

To scent her oil, Razauses the flowers of a common tree, locally known as seir en wai, or ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata). It is the only perfuming ingredient that remains in use for making traditional oil on Pohnpei and Kosrae—and one of the key floral notes in Chanel No. 5. The yellow-green flowers of ylang-ylang are carefully picked and the fragrant petals pulled from the flower and gently piled on a clean cloth. Razathen carefully places several large handfuls of flower petals in the heated coconut oil, stirring until the petals are completely covered with warm oil. Throughout the day, the highly aromatic essential oil found in the petals infuses into the coconut oil. As evening approaches, Razatakes the pot off the fire and pours the oil/flower mixture through wire mesh to remove what remains of the petals. Over the next several days, the process is repeated, with more petals added to the same batch of coconut oil, which takes on a delightful fragrance—subtle but not overwhelming.

According to the ethnographers who visited the region a century ago, this oil was widely used by the royalty who ruled the island and was known as “royal oil.” Commoners, too, used the oil, but bathed and anointed their bodies less frequently. With the adoption of European clothing, the need to protect one’s skin from the equatorial sun was reduced, and slowly traditional customs such as the daily use of this oil to anoint the body and hair after bathing were lost. Today, visitors to the Micronesian islands can still purchase the oil in groceries and souvenir shops, where it might be infused with ylang-ylang, local gardenia, or frangipani.