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Aroma Science

Cultivation and Horticulture of Sandalwood

In many countries that are major producers of sandalwood essential oil, sandalwood trees are cultivated on large plantations with other commercially viable plants. Because of the sandalwood tree’s hemi-parasitic nature, they must be cultivated near a host plant, a cultivation strategy known as inter planting. The best hosts for sandalwood are nitrogen-fixing trees because the growth of sandalwood depends on the availability of amino acids, and the host plant should not compete with the sandalwood for nutrients (SPC, source, 2005).

The species of host plants cultivated along with sandalwood vary among regions. In Tonga, sandalwood is often grown with other commercially-productive plants such as pine, casuarina, citrus, and paper mulberry. In Hawaii, ʻAlaʻala wai nui (Peperomia blanda), a native groundcover, is suggested as an excellent plant to grow near sandalwood (Hawaii Gardening, source, 2008).

Acacias are also known to be good sandalwood hosts. In India, sandalwood can often be intercropped with fruit-bearing trees such as tamarind (Tamarindus indica), pomegranate (Punica granatum), and the curry tree (Murraya koenigii), all of which produce fruit within 2-3 years and therefore can reduce the burden of maintaining the sandalwood trees, which take much longer to produce (source, 2010).

Sandalwood trees grow well in full sun, provided that they can attach their roots to suitable host species to obtain nutrients.  The trees can usually tolerate up to 60-70% shade, but their growth will be much slower in these higher levels of shadeThe optimum amount of shade is about 25-35%.  All species of sandalwood require well-drained soils (PIA, source).

Some disadvantages to growing sandalwood include the lack of seed and planting materials, the lack of species varieties, or cultivars, known to have a high oil yield, theft and harm caused by other invasive plant species.  Additionally, if the trees are planted in a climate with an extremely high rainfall and soil that cannot drain properly, they are often susceptible to root and butt rot fungi, leading to the trees’ rapid death (PIA, source).

Sandalwood trees are currently cultivated for their oil and other products in multiple countries across the world. Large commercial plantations of sandalwood are already well established or are currently being developed in Australia, India, and southern China. Additionally, in the Pacific Islands, many countries support sandalwood cultivation at a community level while also regulating the harvesting of their remaining trees growing in the wild. Countries in this region currently cultivating smaller-scale sandalwood plantations, as well as privately-owned standings of sandalwood, include Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea.

Hawaii also cultivates sandalwood on a very small scale, primarily involving private landowners. Outside of the Pacific Islands, sandalwood plantations are currently being established in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, and Cambodia (Wescorp, source) (India Times, source, 2012).

Until recently, India has always been the lead producer of sandalwood oil. Today, due to over-harvesting and the Indian sandalwood’s subsequent status as a vulnerable species, Australia is now the new center of sandalwood essential oil production in the world. According to the Australian government, “Only two native species of Santalum are harvested for the aromatic timber in Australia: S. spicatum from WA [Western Australia] and S. lanceolatum from Queensland.

Western Australia currently cultivates around 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of S. spicatum on sandalwood plantations (Australian Sandalwood Network, [ASN],  source, 2014). One of its largest companies, TFS Corporation, was the first company to grow Indian sandalwood (S. album) in Australia and has approximately 7,600 hectares (19,000 acres) of trees in northern Australia (TFS, source, 2014). According to Western Australian Sandalwood Plantations (WASP), “Australian sandalwood currently supplies well over half of all sandalwood traded around the globe annually.” Also, Australia is expected to provide the majority of Indian (S. album) sandalwood oil to the world market in the coming years (Green Left, source, 2013).

In addition to the larger corporations established in Australia, sandalwood essential oil is cultivated by a wide variety of companies around the world. In India, the government maintained a longstanding monopoly on the cultivation and trade of the country’s sandalwood trees after Tipu Sultan christened the sandalwood a “royal tree” in the 1790’s. In 2001, however, after the country’s supply of S. album dwindled, India’s government amended its restrictions on sandalwood cultivation.  Under this new amendment, landowners growing the trees can now claim full ownership over them.  Regarding this amendment, forestry consultant Dr. H. S. Anantha Padmanabha explains that, “This has been done to promote farmers and corporate bodies to take initiative to grow sandalwood outside the forest limits.” (source, 2010).

Now, many smaller-scale farmers in India are beginning to show renewed interest in sandalwood cultivation. According to a recent India Times article, “To cash in on this swelling enthusiasm for sandalwood among novice farmers, corporate groups from the city have come up with special profit-sharing ‘packages’ to encourage more and more people to take to agriculture, especially organic farming.” Industry experts state that this growing wave of interest in young farmers and professionals, propelled by the recent amendments to cultivation restrictions, is promising for Indian’s sandalwood industry. (source, 2013).

In Vanuatu, the country’s government has taken considerable steps to protect its natural sandalwood resources and remain a competitive player in the international sandalwood industry.  In 2010, Vanuatu was chosen as the host country for a meeting of Sandalwood Resource Development, Research, and Trade in the Pacific and Asian Region organization.  According to the organization’s committee, “Vanuatu has been chosen to host this workshop in recognition of the significant sandalwooddevelopment work there, providing excellent opportunities to participants from other countries and territories to observe and to learn.” Vanuatu is thus one of the leading countries in protecting and developing new cultivation methods for its sandalwood natural resources

The basis of the sandalwood industry in Vanuatu is wild-harvested sandalwood, rather than plantations. All of Vanuatu’s forests are owned by private landowners, so any methods of reforestation of sandalwood trees are collaborations between these small farmers, distillers, botanists, and others. The country’s villages also play an important role in sandalwood cultivation, working sandalwood trees into their community’s existing agriculture, including smaller ornamental gardens as well as larger plantings. According to recent efforts to revitalize the sandalwood industry in Vanuatu, the country’s recent progress in sandalwood cultivation is trending upward.  However, Vanuatu’s government recognizes that knowledge of sandalwood cultivation, “needs to be more widely available in a format that local people can easily understand,” in order to continue the collaborative efforts between the sandalwood industry and private landowners.

Similarly, in Hawaii the government has recently launched surveys and studies in an attempt to protect their native sandalwood species and encourage private landowners to cultivate sandalwood trees (Hawaii Dept. of Land and Natural Resources, source, 2013).

Most recently, China has joined the sandalwood essential oil industry with the creation of smaller companies committed to sandalwood cultivation. The first large-scale project began in 2012 in Qingyuan City with 200,000 S. album sandalwood trees planted. The company, Sandalwood Forest (Qingyuan) Co., Ltd., aims to build a “sandalwood industry chain that integrates planting, production, processing, research, development, culture, tourism, branding, and sales” (source, 2012). The progress of S. album sandalwood cultivation in China is expected to challenge the recent S. album cultivation in Australia; China is one of the largest importers of sandalwood in the world, and a few industry experts believe that Chinese customers will prefer sandalwood cultivated locally in China, rather than sandalwood shipped from Australia (Australian Center for Agricultural Research, source, 2012).