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The story of human history can be told through sandalwood. Sandalwood has been revered for its medicinal and aromatic properties for thousands of years, stretching back to a time of ancient kings and cultures.
Today, sandalwood is the second most valuable wood in the world. But what exactly is sandalwood? And what makes it so precious?
In this article we’ll demystify sandalwood, exploring what it is, why it’s so valuable and its many uses.
The term ‘sandalwood’ refers to several species of trees, genus name Santalum.
There are species of sandalwood native to India, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia and even stretching as far as Hawaii.
Of the many varieties of sandalwood, Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) is the most prized. It holds the highest concentration of a-santalol and b-santalol, the chemical compounds responsible for sandalwood’s luxurious woody-floral scent. It’s b-santalol that also makes Indian sandalwood essential oil a powerful antiseptic.
While sandalwood is sometimes harvested for the wood itself, its most precious product is sandalwood essential oil.
To make sandalwood essential oil, sandalwood roots and heartwood (the dense, inner part of the tree’s trunk) are turned into chips, which are then processed by steam distillation to extract the essential oil.
Most plantation sandalwood trees are left to mature for at least 15 to 20 years before they are harvested, which allows the valuable heartwood to grow to a larger size.
Sandalwood trees are hemi-parasitic, meaning they can only grow when attached to a suitable host tree, which they rely on for water and nutrients.
The roots, as well as the trunk are valuable, so a sandalwood tree is usually uprooted when it comes time for harvest.
Sandalwood has been used in religious ceremonies and traditional medicine since the pre-Christian era, and is still in high demand for (mostly) the same reasons today.
In Buddhism, sandalwood incense is burnt during prayer and meditation, revered for its ability to calm and focus the mind. Ancient Egyptians imported the wood for use in medicine, embalming and burial and for ritual burning to please the gods.
In Ayurveda, Chinese and Tibetan medical systems, sandalwood oil has been used to treat a variety of health conditions from the common cold and fever to liver and gall-bladder issues. Sandalwood is also used in aromatherapy to aid relaxation and sleep.
Aside from its use in religious ceremonies and traditional medicine, sandalwood has a long history of use in perfume, beauty and sex.
Sandalwood oil and paste has been used in Arabic and Indian perfumery for thousands of years. It’s considered an ‘oriental’ fragrance, part of a family of exotic and luxurious scents. Not only does sandalwood oil add a delicious, spicy warmth to a perfume, it’s also an impressive fixative, able to stabilise the parts of a perfume that would otherwise quickly evaporate and fade away.
With its intoxicating scent, it’s no surprise that sandalwood is also considered an aphrodisiac. It’s mentioned in ancient sanskrit poetry for its ability to ignite passion and is also used as a means to increase arousal in tantric sex.
Sandalwood oil and powder is prized for its beautifying properties. Sandalwood oil is a natural astringent, so is often used in toners, cleansers and moisturisers to manage oily skin and reduce the appearance of pores. Practitioners of Ayurveda use sandalwood oil and powder-based masks to help manage acne and dark circles under the eyes.
Sandalwood is expensive because demand is high and supply is low.
Traditionally, sandalwood has been harvested from wild populations. However, these wild sandalwood forests are under threat of extinction because of unsustainable harvesting practices.
Sandalwood trees only have one life. They’re usually uprooted when harvested, which kills the tree. To produce more sandalwood, a new tree must take its place, and takes many years to grow to maturity. Wild populations of sandalwood have been harvested faster than they were naturally replenished, which is the main reason why sandalwood, particularly Indian sandalwood, came so close to extinction.
In recognition of the unsustainable approach to sandalwood harvesting, governments from around the world have put rules and regulations in place to protect their wild sandalwood forests.
Most governments have put strict limits on the amount of wild wood that can be harvested every year, which is the driving factor behind the high price of sandalwood.
Plantations have been established to help reduce reliance on wild sandalwood forests, providing an alternative, sustainable source of sandalwood.
These sustainable sandalwood farms, like the farms that supply Heartwood's sandalwood, are the future of the industry. They will help ensure that future generations can enjoy the benefits of sandalwood just as the ancients did long before us.