For 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.
How to Make Royal Oil
Making royal oil in the traditional way is fairly simple and inexpensive, and it can be done at home with a few easy-to-obtain ingredients.
1. Start with a few cups of pure coconut oil (which can be bought at a drugstore) and heat this gently in a pot or double boiler—low heat is essential. Too much heat will burn the oil and give it an unpleasant smell. If that happens, discard the oil and start the process again.
2. Pick fresh flowers or leaves with which to perfume the oil. Tropical ylang-ylang may be hard to come by, so try other aromatic flowers, such as rose petals, particularly a fragrant variety like the Damask roses that are traditionally used in perfume making. Mint or lavender leaves and stems can be used to make uplifting body oil. It is fun to experiment with different plants until you identify one—or a mixture—that has an aroma you find pleasing.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and put a cup of chopped petals or leaves in the warm coconut oil. Let the aromatic essences from the plants flow into the oil for 4 to 6 hours. If the oil begins to solidify, slowly heat it back up. Then, using a wire mesh scoop or strainer, remove the plant material. Repeat the process, removing the old flowers and adding new ones each time, during the next day or two, until you find that the scented oil pleases your senses. Pour the oil through cheesecloth or a metal kitchen strainer and bottle it. When I bring perfumed oil back from Micronesia as a gift for friends or make it myself at home, I always add the contents of a capsule or two of vitamin E to each bottle (discarding the gelcap) to prevent oxidation that might lead to rancidity.
To perfume the coconut oil without investing the time needed to make it in the traditional way, try using an essential oil instead. For each cup of warm coconut oil, add a few drops of essential oil, stir carefully, and test on your skin, smelling it to see if you like that concentration.
Oil stored below 76°F will turn into a white solid fat. Keep perfumed coconut oil in a glass or plastic jar that can be placed under a hot faucet, where it will slowly return to a liquid, and then you can easily pour and use it.
Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is an ethnobotanist and the author of Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture (University of Hawai‘i Press/New York Botanical Garden, 2009).