Agarwood — Botany and History


by Sudhir Ahluwalia | |

Botanically, the tropical evergreen species of agarwood belongs to the genus Aquilaria and family Thymelaceae. Agarwood perfume can be extracted from eight species belonging to this genus. The four principal species are Aquilaria sinensis, Aquilaria malaccensis, Aquilaria agallocha, and Aquilaria crassna. Agarwood, or aloeswood, is often confused with aloe vera, which is a purgative. However, aloe vera has no fragrance, which likely eliminates it as a source of agarwood. The following verse perhaps led to this confusion: “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters” (Numbers 24:5–6). This verse suggests that aloes was local to Israel, but A. malaccensis and other aloes-yielding plants are native to southern Asia.


Figure 24 “Aquilaria crassna” by I. Blaise Droz, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Trees older than 60 years are best for extracting resin. Dark wood without white streaks indicates the presence of resin, which is produced when the heartwood is infected by a fungus. As the wood rots, it produces a resin. This process can take centuries, making agarwood resin a scarce resource. Furthermore, in nature, only seven percent of the trees are infected by the fungi. Thus, the use of agarwood as timber is limited. However, extraction of resin requires the tree to be logged..

In ancient times, agarwood was popular in Rome, Greece, Arabia, Persia, Egypt, India, and China. It was used in embalming (e.g., John 19:39–40), and such use continues in some Middle Eastern areas, such as Yemen. Historical records show that A. sinensis trees grew abundantly in Dongguan City (now Guangdong Province, China) about 400 years ago. Paper was made from its bark and used in eastern India and in China. The incense remains popular in many regions today, where it is used in pharmaceutical, personal care, and household products.

Hoards of aloeswood, muslin, and pepper were recovered when the Byzantine King Heraclius (611–641 AD) sacked the imperial residence of the King of Persia. Arabic and Persian writings from 1100 AD and later contain multiple references to it. The cuneiform tablets from the Mesopotamian region also reference aloeswood.

About Sudhir

Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Asia’s largest IT outsourcing company Tata Consultancy Services, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herbs-Holy Herbs. He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service. His webpage is:

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