Sandalwood Santalum album L., commonly known as East Indian Sandalwood or Chandan, is a small tropical tree highly prized for its wood and scented oil. Its wonderful fragrant oil is used in perfumes, toiletries and incense. It is a fascinating tree in many ways.
Sandalwood: the tree and its cultivation
Sandalwood is found throughout India, and most commonly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but is found rarely growing in the wild and classed as having ‘Vulnerable’ conservation status. It is has since been introduced to other countries, including Australia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Sandalwood trees thrive on a wide range of soils including sands, clays and loams, while some believe those growing on gravels or stoney soils have more highly scented wood.
It is a small tree growing only to about 13m and a stem diameter of 30cm to (rarely) 75cm. It has slender elegant branches. It flowers twice a year so flowering and fruiting often overlap, meaning that there is a steady supply of its small purplish-brown drupe.
Sandal is a semi-root parasite or hemiparasitic; requiring a host plant such as Acacia nilotica, Cajuns cajan, Cassia siamea, Casuarina equisetifolia, Mimosa pudica, Pongamia pinnata and Wrightia tinctoria. Trees can be raised from seed but must be planted next to one of these or other host species. The host tree is then carefully managed to ensure that sufficient light reaches the sandalwood seedling. Sandalwood will grow quite slowly in forest conditions (less than 1cm diameter a year) but can attain 5cm increment in favourable soils and climatic conditions. Later they are pruned regularly up to about one half of their height by removing all lateral branches. This promotes heartwood formation, which can start at about 7 years of age.
Only the heartwood of Santalum album has the properties that are most highly valued. The whole tree is harvested, including its roots, and any stem or root larger that 2.5cm in diameter is valuable. The wood is priced by weight, after cleaning, and categorised into billets, roots and chips.
Its wood has a very fine texture and is thought to be second only to ivory for use in intricate wood working. A large number of boxes and religious icons are made from its wood, which benefit from its perfumed scent. A wonderful collection of antique sandalwood boxes exist at the Palace of Mysore.
It has the highest oil and santol content compared to other species in the Santulum genus. The oil is extracted by distillation, from wood once it is split into small billets. Smaller parts and even the sawdust are also used; for example in incense sticks. The extracted oil is used in the manufacture of soaps, talcum powder, perfume and many other toiletry items.
Sandalwood factory photo story
During a recent visit to India, I was fortunate to visit a Government-run sandalwood factory at Mysore. About 140 employees work in the factory, where there is also a small shop. Up to 5kg of oil is extracted from 1 tonne of wood, bought in for about 300,000 Rupees. The oil fetches 100,000 Rupees per kg. Here is a photo story of my visit.