The Mythology of Sandalwood

Nov 12, 01:15 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

Why don't you carry sandalwood? This is the most frequent question I hear from customers who call or e-mail. Aromaceuticals does not make a market in sandalwood due to the fabrications surrounding essential oil from this endangered species, which are the some of the most pervasive mythologies in aromatherapy culture:

The best sandalwood comes from Mysore, India. Actually, it hasn't for well over 100 years. While there are numerous sandalwood warehouses and a state-owned distillery in Mysore, there is virtually no sandalwood cultivation in this area. Some cultivation exists in Tamil and parts of northern India, and all of it has been tightly controlled by the goverment for at least a century. Much of the trees throughout India are suffering from disease.

Sandalwood essential oil comes from the heartwood of the tree. Theoretically, but the Indian trees that are being harvested for distillation are only 12 or 13 years old. Heartwood barely starts to develop in a tree of this age, and is not a viable source of essential oil until the tree is approximately 25 (To give you some perspective, fine quality sandalwood oil was traditionally distilled from the heartwood of 50 to 75+ year old trees). Since young trees have negligible heartwood, the oil is distilled from buttwood, which involves ripping the trees out of the ground and completely destroying them. Not exactly sustainable agriculture, or a harvesting of something old enough to yield a decent quality oil. Consequently the essential oil produced in India, even at the state-owned distillery, is of poor quality.

Sandalwood isn't endangered. That depends on your definition of endangered. In India, there is a limited cultivation of young trees that yield less than stellar oil. The few old trees in India exist on private property, and they are extremely valuable. Hence, they are subject to poaching by bandits known as "forest brigands'" who operate with the full cooperation of Indian police. Every year, people are murdered while protecting the trees on their property, and a few forest brigands also die in the process. Santalum album and its somewhat similar cousin, Santalum spicatum, used to be distributed throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and certain South Pacific islands, but these species have been virtually wiped out everywhere but Australia.

My supplier claims that their Indian sandalwood only comes from the fallen limbs of old trees or from old dead trees that have been abandoned. Not likely, please see above. Perhaps you would be interested in some oceanside property in the Himalayas?

That essential oil from Australia isn't real sandalwood. Both Santalum album (true Indian sandalwood) and Santalum spicatum (Australian sandalwood) grow in Australia. Santalum spicatum is generally considered to be an inferior oil, although it is often therapeutically interchangeable with Indian sandalwood. In fact, much of the oil commonly sold as "Indian sandalwood" or "Sandalwood Mysore" is actually Australian spicatum (also endangered) which has been intentionally mislabelled by unscrupulous suppliers. An interesting tidbit: At the time of Mahatma Ghandi's death in 1948, there was not enough sandalwood in India for his funeral pyre, so logs of Santalum album were imported from Australia for the state funeral ceremony.

Buying Australian essential oil is safe, because sandalwood isn't endangered there. That remains to be seen. Wild Australian sandalwood is very much endangered. There aren't many plantations cultivating sandalwood, which was a hit or miss proposition until about three decades ago. Several plantations now claim to be sustainably harvesting the trees, but in fact these trees are only 25 years old, and now just at the point where the wood will yield a good quality essential oil. It remains to be seen whether these planations can continue sustainable harvesting and cultivation due to the worldwide demand for sandalwood oil. For example, Aveda claims to be buying sustainably cultivated sandalwood from Australia, and that company alone can buy up an entire distillery's annual production just for their own needs. The Australian plantations simply haven't been around long enough for us to know whether they will succeed or go the way of India. 

Australian sandalwood essential oil is very high quality. Some of it is... and some of it isn't. A lot of it isn't even essential oil, but solvent-extracted absolute. The Australians aren't too much better than the Indians when it comes to being truthful about what or how they are cultivating or distilling.

I found a really good deal on sandalwood oil at the local health food store. What you probably found was a completely synthetic product. There are over two dozen chemical mixtures commonly used by the commerical fragrance industry to acceptably mimic sandalwood. Believe me, an oil that has gotten this hard to come by is not going to come cheap, nor is it going to be found in many local stores.

In conclusion, when it comes to sandalwood essential oil, let the buyer beware.

Works cited
Burfield, Tony. Updated List of Threatened Aromatic Plants Used in the Aroma & Cosmetic Industries, v 1.05. July 2008. Cropwatch.org.

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