What is Agarwood?

S. Mithra

Agarwood forms as a resinous substance deep inside some kinds of trees from Southeast Asia. Many cultures prize agarwood, which isn't wood at all, as incense and perfume oil to use during religious ceremonies at temples and mosques. Excessive harvest of agarwood from supposedly protected forests has made the resin rare as well as endangered many species of host trees.

Some places of worship in Islam and Buddhism use agarwood oil as incense.
Some places of worship in Islam and Buddhism use agarwood oil as incense.

Also known as aloeswood, heartwood, or eaglewood, agarwood resembles amber resin. It is sticky and malleable, but not naturally produced by trees like most kinds of sap. It only forms within a small percentage of trees from the Aquilaria family, called thymelaeceae, that used to grow across the temperate and rainforests in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam. These tropical trees actually grow very quickly in poor soil, so long as they have enough water.

Agarwood forms as a resinous substance deep inside some kinds of trees from southeast Asia.
Agarwood forms as a resinous substance deep inside some kinds of trees from southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, the trees aren't valued for their prolific lumber, but rather the anomalous substance of agarwood that seems to arise as a result of an infection or genetic mutation. Sadly, one cannot tell which trees might yield a hefty harvest of agarwood until they are felled and split open. Foresight may have allowed them to be monitored as a renewable resource, yet over-harvesting has all but eliminated the Aquilaria trees in most countries. Repopulation at this point is probably not tenable.

Agarwood, mostly from Vietnam, exported to other countries might find itself being burned as a medicinal smoke, wrapped with prayer shawls to scent them, or pressed to extract the potent oil. Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine value the smoke as healing because it rebalances chi. In Korea the "kanam" gets burned for the black smoke, just like the "kanankoh" in Japan.

Holy places of Islam, Shintoism, and Buddhism use distilled agarwood oil as temple offerings and incense. The lauded smell from the "wood of the Gods" can be placed on altars as well as dotted on skin to bring out the rich scent. Even soaps and perfumes have incorporated agarwood's distinctive aroma.

Some perfumes incorporate the scent of agarwood.
Some perfumes incorporate the scent of agarwood.

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Discussion Comments


Agarwood is rare because it only forms in trees that have a parasitic mold. The tree produces the resin to fight the infection.

Technically trees from this family could be grown and intentionally infected with this parasite so that they produce agarwood. Maybe it's being done already, I'm not sure. But there is no reason why anyone should go around cutting these tropical trees. That's a hit or miss and a waste a lot of trees. But if the trees are grown specifically for this purpose, agarwood won't be so rare.


@bear78-- Yes, you're absolutely right. Agarwood is said to be the most expensive wood. It's not really wood, but you know what I mean. So both agarwood incense and agarwood oil are fairly expensive.

The fact that the tree has almost been wiped out also makes the agarwood even rarer and more expensive. I personally feel that we should avoid buying agarwood products because pretty soon, this resin will not be available at all. These trees need to replenish themselves and that is not going to happen as long as agarwood remains a popular and sought after resin. We just need to leave these trees alone.


I knew "agarwood" sounded familiar. The Hindi name for incense is "agarbatti." I'm assuming that's the Hindi version of "agarwood" because incense was traditionally made from this resin. But I don't think that agarbatti today contains any agarwood. I have been using agarbatti at home for years. It's imported from India but very affordable. I'm sure if it was made with agarwood, it would be more costly.


You can use agarwood oil to help you sleep. I have trouble with insomnia and ordered some agarwood essential oil to use in an oil warmer. It seems to help me relax me, so I can get a deeper, more restful sleep.

I also read it is a strong aphrodisiac, but haven't tried it for that purpose.

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