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Incense Ingredient

Sandalwood

Japanese: Byakudan

Sandalwood
Sandalwood - Photo by David Oller

Sandalwood Flower
Sandalwood Flower-Mysore India

Sandalwood Tree
Sandalwood tree in Jakarta Indonesia
  Photo by Kyozaburo Nakata

Santalum album L.

An ancient Buddhist scripture states: "None but the Mali Mountains contain Sandalwood. . ." — Moho Chi Kuan — Chih-i

One of the oldest incense materials, Sandalwood has been in use for at least 4,000 years. Sandalwood is a very important ingredient in Japanese incense, in both traditional and modern formulas.

Today, the Mysore forests are virtually depleted and the remaining trees too immature to produce quality Sandalwood or Sandalwood oil. It is my belief that the highest quality Sandalwood is coming out of Tamil Nadu where more mature trees can be found.

The sandal tree, botanically known as Santalum Album belongs to the family Santalaceae. The sandal tree grows almost exclusively in the forests of Karnataka, followed by Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, Timor Islands of Indonesia etc. The tree is medium sized 12-15 meters tall. The tree reaches its full maturity in 60 to 80 years, which is when the center of the slender trunk (the heart wood) has achieved its greatest oil content. As the tree grows, the essential oil develops in the roots and heartwood, which requires atleast 15 to 20 years. Full maturity is reached after 60 to 80 years. The core of dark heartwood gradually develops, which is covered by outer sapwood. The sandalwood tree is never felled, but uprooted in the rainy season, when the roots are richer in the precious essential oil. Vietnam and New Caledonia have well controlled plantations of genuine Sandalwood. The best quality oil comes from the Indian province of Mysore and Tamil Nadu where the harvest of Sandalwood trees are protected by the state government.

"The sandal tree does very well on it's own, and seems to appear in places it was never seen before. However all attempts by man to proliferate and increase the growth of the species have yeilded declining plant populations. It appears very resistant to manipulation!" -- (source: Christopher Mc Mahon)

Other species

Pterocarpus santalius or santalum rubrum (red sandalwood) solely used for colouring and dyeing. Other varieties come from the Sandwich islands, Western Australia and New Caledonia. The Australian (S. spicatum or Eucarya spicata) produces a very similar oil but with a dry-bitter top note. Other varieties growing in the West Indies, Venezuelan, Jamacian, and Hatiai are Amyris balsamifera L., and is not even in the same family.

Chemical Constituents

Sesquiterpenes; Sesquiterpenols; Sesquiterpenals; (includes 80 to 90% terpeniod alcohols including a and B-santalols (67%), which is a mixture of two primary sesquiterpenic alcohols) santalic and teresantalic acid, aldehyde, pterocarpin and hydrocarbons, isovaleric aldehyde, santene, santenone.

Today all exports of Sandalwood are closely supervised and regulated by the Indian government and limited supplies of high quality sandalwood oil are coming out of Tamil Nadu. However, the Mysore forests are still being plundered by bandits and poachers who rape the forests of immature trees.

© Copyright 1999-2001 David Oller