Sandalwood Aromatic Oils

The sandalwood is an aromatic tree which belongs to the Santalum genus. There are around 15 species. The two main varieties are the Australian sandalwood which has the scientific name of Santalum spicatum and a variety from India, the Santalum album – which is also grown in the Ord River irrigation area in the far north of Western Australia. India now supplies only enough sandalwood for its own needs. Western Australia supplies about 60% of the world's sandalwood.

SandalwoodCredit: Wikimedia

 The sandalwood was once widespread through the wheatbelt area of Western Australia. It is a shrubby, small tree with grey-green foliage. It is tolerant to drought and is often planted on ground that is salt-affected. It can reach a height of six metres and has small flowers which attract flies, bees, wasps and ants. Smooth, spherical orange fruits contain a hard nut, the white kernel of which is edible. Another Santalum is the native peach or quandong (Santalum acuminatum). The fruit from the quandong can be used like any other fruit and either eaten raw, stewed or made into jam.

Sandalwood has been exported from Western Australia since the 1840s and was once Western Australia's primary export earner. The pungent wood has a religious significance in both Hindu and Buddhist religions. The oils have unique 'fixing' qualities which are useful in shampoos, lotions and bath oils. Perfumes such as Calvin Klein's 'Obsession' and Yves St Laurent 'Opium' have subtle overtones of sandalwood.

All members of the genus are root hemi parasitic plants. This means they attach their roots to the roots of other plants. Through the connection ((or haustoria) they gain some of their nutrient and water requirements from the host species. This is a symbiotic relationship and lasts throughout the life of the sandalwood.

Natural stands of sandalwood are now rare. Wholesale harvesting and large-scale clearing of vast areas for agriculture means the sandalwood is now rarely seen in its natural environment.

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The best host trees seem to be nitrogen-fixing plants such as the acacias or wattles endemic to Australia. Common host trees include Acacia acuminata or jam-tree which grows in a number of different soil types. Jam trees have been known to sustain its symbiotic relationship with the sandalwood for 15 to 30 years.

Other host species are the rock she-oak (Allocasuarina huegeliana), mulga (Acacia aneura) and wodjil (Acacia resinimarginea).

Sandalwood oil is extracted from the heartwood which doesn't start to form until the tree is around five years of age. Plantation trees are normally harvested when the trees are between 12 and 20 years of age. The nut has a high level of protein and is sold as a food product. The oil has many medicinal qualities. Its use as an antiinflammatory and antibacterial product is increasing and it is highly valued as an ingredient in massage oils.

Although once widespread throughout the southern part of the state, natural stands of sandalwood are now rare. Indiscriminate harvesting of the trees, and clearing of vast areas for agriculture finally resulted in controls being introduced to prevent the total extinction of the tree.

Plantations of sandalwood are now relatively common through the wheatbelt area of Western Australia. The plantations are a viable way for farmers to diversify.