Soulful Sandalwood Stories January 30, 2020

Sandalwood essential oil has been used for perfumery, medicinal, religious and cultural purposes over many centuries. The trees are all similar to varying degrees, as they are semi-parasitic which means they absorb certain nutrients such as phosphates and nitrates from the host trees via root connections. The heartwood is harvested and ground down into chips for steam distillation to produce the fragrant essential oil.

The Santalaceae family has 18 species belonging to the genus Santalum; however, we limit this discussion to the most common ones used for essential oil production. Besides Santalum album we focus on these species: S. austrocaledonicum, S. macgregorii, S. lanceolatum, S. peniculatum, and S. spicatum.


Sandalwood has a history of more than 5,000 years in India. It is used as a fixative in modern times for many flavour and fragrance industries, cosmetics, perfumes, incense sticks, flavoured chewing tobacco, and many therapeutic medicines. Sandalwood is considered very important in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.

In Hinduism and Ayurveda, sandalwood is used in prayers for cremation and other ritualistic ceremonies as it is thought to bring one closer to the Divine. In Buddhism, the scent of sandalwood is said to aid in alertness while in meditation. It is often found in idol carvings in Buddhist temples. In China and Japan, the wood was also used in religious carvings and to decorate deities.

The ancient Chinese and Egyptians used sandalwood for medicinal purposes. The wood was also widely used in folk medicine for treatment of common colds, bronchitis, skin disorders, heart ailments, general weakness, fever, infection of the urinary tract and mouth and pharynx, liver and gallbladder complaints, hypertension and other neurotic concerns. The oil was still most notably used as an antiseptic and antibacterial agent well into the 1930s. In Hawaii, sandalwood oil was traditionally used to scent coconut oil (for application to the hair and body) and cultural artifacts, such as tapa cloth.

The oil became widely popular for its use in the flavour and fragrance industries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Sandalwood has been most notably used by perfumers as a fragrance fixative for the past 100 years. It is used as a flavouring agent in the Indian flavouring industry, and as a medicinal ingredient in pharmacopoeia, Ayurveda and Unani medicines for over a century.

Today, sandalwood oil is still highly prized and valued in aromatherapy, cosmetics, the flavouring industry, medicine and perfumery.

Indian Sandalwood
Santalum album

Santalum album is native to India, Indonesia, and the Malay Archipelago. It is also grown in Australia. Height of the tree ranges from 4-9 metres. The tree can grow to one hundred years of age. Sandalwood is considered sacred in parts of Asia and India and is used in religious ceremonies.

Odour Profile: According to Tony Burfield, the genuine oil is pale yellow to yellow, a somewhat viscous liquid, it has a persistent strong characteristic odour, which can be described as a rich, smooth sensual precious wood note with a powerful radiance, with some perfumers describing an animal aspect. Drydown is powerful, sweet, creamy, radiant, fine, and woody rather milky and balsamic notes.

Therapeutic Characteristics and Uses: Sandalwood is considered a gentle oil and suitable for all skin types. The oil is known for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antiseptic, emollient, expectorant, and muscle relaxant therapeutic properties. iIt is known to aid in sleep, help with anxiety and depression. Useful for its powerful antibacterial properties, sandalwood is often used to treat various skin conditions and respiratory issues.

Sustainability: Santalum album is currently listed and has been listed since 1998 as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, especially in its native growing regions. This current status is limited only to that of the wild population in its native growing regions of China, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines and does not consider the cultivation in areas such as Australia. Although conservation plans have been put in place to revive sandalwood’s availability, it will take several more years before harvesting can take place and the vulnerability status can be removed. Australia set up several plantations of the Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album) decades ago, which is now being harvested.

Australian Sandalwood
Santalum spicatum

Australian Sandalwood is native to southwest Australia. It is one of 4 highly valued Santalum sandalwood species in Australia. It can grow to 6 metres, which is shorter than the Indian Santalum album variety. The plant produces a fruit with an edible hard-shell kernel and the seed oil is now produced and finding a place as a lightweight lipid addition to formulas.

Odour Profile: Burfield describes the oil as a pale yellow semi-viscous liquid, sometimes almost water-white, with woody odour that has some of the rich creamy sensual notes of sandalwood East Indian but with a terpenic, woodier, cedary character.

Sustainability: Santalum spicatum is an ecological and sustainably grown species. Australia is currently leading the world in conservation, sustainable cultivation and harvesting of sandalwood for the Santalum spicatum, Santalum lanceolatum, and Santalum album species. The largest sandalwood plantations worldwide can be found in Australia.

Hawaiian Sandalwood
Santalum peniculatum and Santalum freycinetianum

Hawaiian Sandalwood Santalum peniculatum, commonly known as Mountain Sandalwood, Hawaiian Sandalwood, or ‘Iliahi’ is native to Hawaii. Santalum paniculatum grow from 3-11 metres in height.

Odour Profile: This species produces a pale yellow to yellow hued essential oil, which has a warm, soft balsamic and woody odour. The drydown is largely unchanged at 24-48 hours and persistent for very much longer. 

Sustainability: There are currently no local laws in place to regulate cultivation, harvesting and conservation of this vulnerable species. Former local City Councilman, Leigh-Wai Doo, is working hard to pass legislation that would provide monitoring and harvest and export restrictions in place, ultimately leading the species to be regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Some additional efforts have been put in place to begin conservation and regrowth of this species through the efforts of the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative “Plant a tree program”. 

New Caledonia or Vanuatu Sandalwood
Santalum austrocaledonicum

Santalum austrocaledonicum is native to the New Caledonia and Vanuatu Islands of Southeast Asia in the Pacific, and India. The tree grows to around 5 to 12 metres (16 to 39 ft) tall. The tree flowers after year 6-7 and bears an edible fruit.

Odour Profile: The odour is immediately recognisable as sandalwood but is more terpenic and ambery than sandalwood oil East Indian, less radiant and less intensely woody but with some of the creaminess. Drydown is weak woody-creamy. It is far less strong than the East Indian oil from S. album and has none of the radiance.

Sustainability: Santalum austrocaledonicum var. glabrum Santalum austrocaledonicum var. glabrum also known as New Caledonia and Vanuatu Sandalwood. It is listed on the IUCN Red list as having a vulnerable status. 

Queensland Sandalwood
Santalum lanceolatum

Santalum lanceolatum, is a tree native to Australia. It is commonly known as desert quandong, Northern Queensland Sandalwood, and in some areas as burdardu. It is found more abundantly in central Australia. The essential oil has a smooth, fragrant, earthy, woody aroma with a soft gentle hint of honey, spice and floral notes. A citrus and rose like undertone is also present.

Odour Profile: The oil is pale yellow to greenish, a somewhat viscous liquid, it has a persistent strong characteristic odour, which can be described as a rich, smooth, milky, woody and green powerful note. Drydown is powerful, sweet, woody and earthy.

Sustainability: There is an abundant amount of wild harvest timber available, small amounts have been used for carving and furniture. Traditionally farmers have been removing the timber from agricultural land and this has been collected for trading. There are no plantations established.

Papua New Guinea Sandalwood
Santalum macgregorii

Santalum macgregorii Sandalwood is native to Papua New Guinea and grows between 100 and 1,500 metres and is not readily available throughout the region. This sandalwood variety is used for carving and burned as incense and yields aromatic oil used in perfumes.

Odour Profile: The slightly viscous clear oil of Papua New Guinea Sandalwood presents a uniquely different top/ heart-note from other sandalwoods. The odour can be described as a sweet floral top-note that quickly transitions the floral notes with a deep, rich vanilla/balsamic heart-note upon drydown leaving behind deep oriental accords mixed with a woody aroma to finish.

Sustainability: All government-controlled S. macgregorii has been harvested leaving only a select few privatelyowned landowner crops available for trade.

Fiji Sandalwood
Santalum yasi

Santalum yasi can be found in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Yasi is a small shrub or tree that grows up to 8-10 metres in height. This species grows in the lowland, drier, more open forest. Traditionally included in mixed cropping agroforestry cultivation systems, the species hybridises readily with S. album resulting in variable quality of oil depending on the sourced trees.

Odour Profile: The odour can be described as soft, sweet, woody and balsamic.

Sustainability: The Forestry Department in Fiji, with assistance from the AUS-Aid funded SPRIG (South Pacific Regional Initiative on Forest Genetic Resources) programme, have put conservation and harvesting programmes in place. They distribute seedlings among local villages who are growing the crop as a source of monetary income.

In conclusion, Sandalwood Essential Oil is making a comeback in market availability. But we still have to be vigilant in our consuming of this precious essential oil so there will be availability in the future.

Julia Cheek and Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, Atlantic institute of Aromatherapy