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By: Timothy Nott









The Western Australian Sandalwood tree (S. spicatum)








Introduction to Sandalwood

There are two main species used to produce Sandalwood products, such as soap, incense, medicines, fragrant sticks and oils. These are Santalum album and Santalum spicatum (see above picture). Both these species have a poor form, growing 3 –12 meters in height and 0.1 –0.3 meters in diameter. Bark, flowers, fruit and pollination of the plants (particularly S. album) are all described in detail in the literature.

The wood is a pale yellow colour and S. album often has alternating light and dark concentric zones. The heartwood is characteristically aromatic, persistent and tastes peculiar due to the extractives produced when sapwood is converted to heartwood.

Sandalwood has been used by humans (particularly in India) as an oil, scented burning sticks and aromatic carving wood for centuries. Due to the slow growing nature of the sandalwood tree and the high demand for its heartwood (see management section for description) properties it is the second most expensive legal wood. This equates to $2000/meters cubed. Plantations of sandalwood should therefore be a profitable investment if managed properly. Environmental conditions and management techniques necessary for the production of Sandalwood are briefly described below.




Environmental Conditions

The Santalaceae family comprises of 400 species in which the genera Santalum contains 29 different types. There are only two species which are used for sandalwood oils, incense etc. The environmental conditions each species live in are described briefly below.


Santalum spicatum

Mean coldest month - 3 to 7 degrees Celsius


Santalum album


Mean coldest month - 5 – 10 degrees Celsius




Host Species

Many of the 29 Genera in the Santalaceae family, including both S. album and S. spicatum, are partially or completely parasitic. This means, that for a plant to grow, it must have another plant to feed off to gain its food energy. The host plant may be from a wide range of species that can tolerate similar environmental conditions to Santalum. An extensive list of host species and related biomass growth, sandal height and number of root connections between plants (haustorical connections) was compiled by Ananthapadmanabha et al (1980).

 Past negative ideologies have lead to avoidance of the use of parasitic plants in a forest production system. These include the idea that there is a negative growth effect of parasites, due to competition on the host species. This may be true for some genera but there has recently been studies on the effect of Santalum species on hosts plants which showed there was an increase in host growth. Part of this has been attributed to high Gibberic acid concentrations in the sandalwood leaves which are a good nutrient source when broken down in soils.

It could then reasonably be hypothesized that two viable crop species could be managed in one area, therefore increasing the income base. This will be discussed later.




Heartwood Production

The prized properties of the sandalwood tree are concentrated in the heartwood. Heartwood can be defined as "the inner most and oldest wood, no longer functional for water transport and food storage, often characterized by coloured deposits of resinous, phenolic and other compounds which are frequently associated with enhanced durability" (Forest trees of Australia, 1994).

There is marked variability between sites and within sites in the percentage of a bole that has been converted to heartwood. This suggests that the timing and speed of the transition is genetically controlled. The idea of selectively breading to increase heartwood production has been used in India on Santalum album for decades and is now being used on the Australian species Santalum spicatum. This recent research has mainly taken place in Western Australia by CALM (Commonwealth and Land Management). Another way to speed up and therefore maximize heartwood production, particularly in young trees, is to stress the plant. This may be through water deficiency or other means.

Due to the inferiority of the heartwood in the WA species (S. spicatum) to the Indian species (S. album), there has been limited commercial interest in producing Sandalwood. This however is changing, as supplies in India are dwindling, as regeneration of the species is slow. This is combined with the increasing demand for the wood and oil making the option of planting sandalwood on Australian farms increasingly economically viable.




A Sandalwood harvest in Western Australia







To be able to utilize and manage a plant for its use by humans, an understanding of the mechanisms involved in the growth and reproduction of the plant is needed. The environmental conditions needed for growth of the species Santalum, spicatum are described above.

Due to the hardy and adaptive nature of the native WA species, plantations of Santalum can be grown in a multitude of environments particularly in low rainfall areas. Maximum growth however has been recorded in areas of high rainfall ranging from 500 to 2000mm per year. Areas with this rainfall would therefore be best suited to growing a production forest of S. spicatum.

Sandalwoods parasitic nature gives farmers the opportunity to grow two potential crops at once. Initially however, leguminous plants are used for juvenile trees.

There is limited information on increasing heartwood production, but science may lead to ingenious methods in the near future.

When the trees are cut down copusing takes place. This means that the plant has a reseviour of shoots to regrow from, when damaged. This attribute can be used to aviod replanting after harvesting. Most harvesting is destructive as the root system houses many of the desired properties the tree produces.

Before deciding to plant Sandalwood for future economic benefits, a full management plan including host species choice, heartwood production and harvesting practices must be analyzed to ensure success.





Future Possibilities

Sandalwood today is the second most costly wood per meter square. Large economic benefits of planting Sandalwood can theoretically be gained if an appropriate management plan is put ion place.

Competition from India however is strong, not only due to the fact Sandalwood products have been utilized for many years from Indian forests, but the industry is a government monopoly.

The balance is turning in Australia’s favor because of unsustainable Indian forest practices opening opportunities for Australian farmers willing to get involved in the growing industry.







  1. Boland, D.J., et al (1994); Forest Trees of Australia, CSIRO Publications, East Melbourne.
  2. Coppen, J.W. (1995); Flavours and Fragrances of plant origon. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome.
  3. N/I, (1984); Flora of Australia, Vol 22,Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
  4. Blombery, A.M. (1980); A Guide to Australian Native Plants, Halsted Press, Sydney.
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  8. n/sandalwood_branded.html
  10. p;1=6&F=BT96079abs.pdf.html




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Copyright 1998, The Australian National University.

Author: Timothy Nott

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Date last modified: 31/10/98


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