SANDALWOOD (Santalum album – Santalaceae)

Towards the end of 1989 I was able to visit a sandalwood plantation and distillery in India. I was attending a holistic conference in Bangalore, which is not too far from the district of Karnataka and its main town of Mysore, the heart of the sandalwood-growing areas. After obtaining government permission – for all plantations and distilleries are govern¬ment controlled – I and my good friend Helen Passant were taken by an Indian friend to Mysore. Even before hitting the outskirts of the town, we could smell the sandalwood fragrance in the warm air; in fact everything – hair, skin, clothes, the silk manufactured in Mysore – is permeated by it.

This fragrance grew more intense and sweet as we approached the plantation and factory. The manager, Mr Chandraskharaian, described to us the plant’s history and the processes it goes through.

The true sandalwood – Santalum album – is an evergreen, semi-parasitic tree native to southern Asia, growing particularly well in the south Indian highlands at heights of 600 – 24,000 m (2-80,000 ft). Other varieties in the genus grow in the Pacific Islands and Australasia. The tree is medium sized, about 12-15 m (40-50 ft) high when mature, which is at the age of 40 – 50 years. This is when the heartwood – the centre of the slender trunk – has achieved its greatest circumference and greatest oil content. It is this heartwood and the roots which are fragrant and contain the oil, the bark and sapwood are odourless.

The tree grows from sandalwood fruits which look like small black cherries. Germination from the seeds of the fruit takes about 20 days and then the roots of the seedling attach themselves to nearby trees, bushes and grasses. For seven years the young tree depends on other plants for nourishment (causing the hosts to die), before it can survive by itself. It then requires well-drained, loamy soil, and a minimum of 75 cm (25 in) rainfall per year. The Indian government controls 75 per cent of the total output of sandalwood in the world. Rules and regulations are very strict and every sandalwood tree has to be registered: they are not allowed to be felled indiscriminately, a necessary measure when the subject involved requires up to 50 years to achieve full productivity. These safeguards have been frequently.
abused, however, and clandestine cutting has caused the destruction of many trees. Further precautionary measures are planned for the next few years, and there is an extensive propagation programme to replace the trees felled legally for commerce (or those struck by disease).

There are two state-owned factories in India which have the capacity to produce 60-70,000 kg (130-150,000 lb) of sandalwood oil and can cater for world-wide demand. When each tree is 40 – 50 years old, and has a girth of 60 – 62 cm (24 – 25 in), it is carefully felled. The dark brown trunk gives off a very strong scent at this stage, especially near the ground and the fragrant roots. A mature tree can yield up to 200 kg (440 lb) of oil, an enormous quantity. The yield of oil from the roots varies from 6 – 7 per cent, and in the heartwood from 2 – 5 per cent.

Sandalwood has a long history. It is mentioned in old Sanskrit and Chinese manuscripts: the oil was used in religious ritual, and many deities and temples were carved from its wood. The Ancient Egyptians imported the wood, and used it in medicine, embalming and ritual, burning it to venerate the gods; they also carved fine art objects from it. The Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of holistic medicine, recom¬mended sandalwood for its tonic, astringent and anti-febrile properties; a powder made into paste was used for skin inflammations, abscesses and tumours. (This usage, for skin ulcers particularly, was echoed by P H Guybert in 1636, in his treatise on Medicine Charitable.) In the Indian pharmacopoeia, sandalwood is deemed to promote perspiration, and mixed with milk it was said to help blennoragia – the discharge of mucus. Many remedies recommend its use in association with cardamom.

In Europe in 1868, a Glaswegian doctor, Dr Henderson, drew practitioners’ attention to this wonderful remedy, particularly quoting his success in cases of blennoragia. Later, French doctors Panas, Laber and Bordier, confirmed these researches. In France at this time, sandalwood was given in capsules of 40 g four to five times a day: 40 minutes after swallowing, a strong sandalwood smell was recorded in the urine of the patients. Roughly speaking these are the areas in which sandalwood was used earlier this century, for the mucus of chronic bronchitis, and for all urinary problems (cystitis, bladder infections and inflammations). It was also considered a useful diuretic and helpful in cases of diarrhoea.

It seems that the future of sandalwood is precarious. The repeated demands of the perfume industry over the last five years have caused large scale destruction to the trees, with alarming results in some parts of India. I now only very reluctantly use sandalwood if at all, and have turned to other essential oils with similar curative properties, such as galbanum and incense.


Description: Once sandalwood oil has been distilled it is kept in the distillery for about six months so that it can achieve the right maturity and perfume. It develops from a very pale yellow to a brownish-yellow; it is viscous with a heavy, sweet, woody and fruity aroma which is pungently balsamic.

The principal constituents: Santalol (90 per cent and more), which is a mixture of two primary sesquiterpenic alcohols.

Dangers: Sandalwood oil can be adulterated with diverse oils such as castor, palm and linseed. This can be detected easily by experts, but the public can be deceived. There are so many other oils with similar properties that if you are at all concerned by environmental issues, please avoid buying sandalwood and use alternatives instead.


In illness
Sandalwood oil is still one of the main remedies used in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. Asians and Arabs use it in self-treatment for a great number of diseases. In Europe, it mostly features in perfumery and soap, and it once had a major role in aromatherapy. In therapy it was often associated with other oils such as baumes de perou or tolu, or cajuput or chamomile, and applied externally to skin inflammations such as those caused by allergy or eczema, or to abscesses and cracked and chapped skin. It was also very relaxing, and could help meditation. (Sheets kept in a sandalwood coffer or chest will smell beautiful, and help you sleep for the same reason.) Now, however, I do not think we should use sandalwood as the demand for it is destroying vast plantations and has lead to the cutting of the trees before maturity when far too young.

(See also cystitis.)

In beauty
As a cosmetic ingredient, East Indian sandalwood is very important. No oriental perfume is complete without it, and its sweet, powerful, lasting odour makes it an excellent fixative in perfume. Almost 90 per cent of East Indian sandalwood oil is used in perfumes, cosmetics and soaps.

Other uses
Sanders, saunders or santal are ingredients which appear in many manuscripts and old books. These sometimes refer to true sandalwood, more often other fragrant trees such as Pterocarpus santalinus. Raspings or powder were used in perfumed powders and pot-pourris, and red and yellow sanders even appeared in medieval British cookery books, used as food colorant.

One of the principal uses of the wood is in fragrant carvings, such as those sold in India, and in some kinds of cabinet making. The wood is soft and therefore easy to carve.

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