Sandalwood is a tree with a highly aromatic wood. It is economically and culturally important to many countries around the Pacific and Eastern Indian Ocean regions where it grows or is traded. The wood is prized for making furniture, ornaments, sacred objects, carvings and joss sticks (incense). The essential oil is used in medicine, perfume and aromatherapy.
There are 16 species of sandalwood (Santalum) that grow naturally throughout the Pacific and Eastern Indian Ocean regions. Sandalwoods are evergreens ranging in size from tall shrubs up to large trees. They grow in a variety of climates--from the Australian desert to subtropical New Caledonia--and at elevations from sea level to over 8000 feet. Sandalwood is a parasitic plant, equipped with special structures on its roots that penetrate the roots of host plants and obtain nutrients.
The most well-known and economically important species is Santalum album, or Indian sandalwood. Indian sandalwood has the highest oil content (6 to 7%) and a desirable aroma profile. New Caledonia's S. austrocaledonicum and Fiji's S. Yasi are also distilled to produce essential oil. S. spicatum from Australia has been valued for its wood for many years, and has recently also become a source for essential oil. Many of the other species are used for their wood, for building, firewood and for furniture making.
Trees harvested for oil are selected by age and size because of the higher proportion of heartwood (and thus essential oil) in larger trees. Dead-standing or fallen trees are also harvested because the wood holds onto the essential oil for many years. The whole tree is harvested and used--including the sawdust and the stump (which has the highest oil content) and the sapwood (which contains a small amount of oil). The lower grades of sandalwood, such as the sapwood, are used for incense and for chips and powder, while the better logs are used in carving (from small objects to furniture).
Sandalwood was first used in ancient times--probably more than 4,000 years ago. In India, it's been valued for at least 2,000 years as one of the most sacred trees--an important part of devotional rituals. The wood has been used to make various religious artifacts such as staffs and figurines, and a sandalwood paste was made for marking the skin. Because of its resistance to white ants, the wood was also used in early buildings.
Sandalwood was an important medicinal herb in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicines. By 700 B.C., it was an important trade item and has been found in Egyptian embalming formulas. It was also used in death rituals in other countries--in India it was burned on funeral pyres or even used to make coffins for the very wealthy.
A key ingredient in perfumes and incense, lotions and body oils, sandalwood has been one of the most important perfume materials for more than 2000 years. In China, sandalwood joss sticks are very popular as incense. Sandalwood's use in European and American perfumery was not significant until the 1900s, where it was (and still is) appreciated for its fixative ability as well as its fragrance. Today it is often used in fine perfumes.
Following tradition, the wood of the sandalwood tree is still used to make sacred objects, carvings, and various handcrafted ornaments. In the past, it was often used for temple doors, and it is still valued for intricately carved furniture--although with today's high prices, it is used for this purpose less than in the past. Chips of wood are burned as an incense or ground to make incense sticks.