Santalum album or Indian sandalwood, is a small tropical tree, and is the most commonly known source of sandalwood. It is native to southern India and Southeast Asia. Certain cultures place great significance on its fragrant and medicinal qualities. It is also considered sacred in some religions and is used in different religious traditions. The high value of the species has caused its past exploitation, to the point where the wild population is vulnerable to extinction. Indian sandalwood still commands high prices for its essential oil, but due to lack of sizable trees it is no longer used for fine woodworking as before. The plant is widely cultivated and long lived, although harvest is only viable after many years. Etymologically it is derived from Sanskrit चन्दनं chandanam.
The height of the evergreen tree is between 4 and 9 metres. They may live to one hundred years of age. The tree is variable in habit, usually upright to sprawling, and may intertwine with other species. The plant parasitises the roots of other tree species, with a haustorium adaptation on its own roots, but without major detriment to its hosts. An individual will form a non-obligate relationship with a number of other plants. Up to 300 species (including its own) can host the tree’s development – supplying macronutrients phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, and shade – especially during early phases of development. It may propagate itself through wood suckering during its early development, establishing small stands. The reddish or brown bark can be almost black and is smooth in young trees, becoming cracked with a red reveal. The heartwood is pale green to white as the common name indicates. The leaves are thin, opposite and ovate to lanceolate in shape. Glamorous surface is shiny and bright green, with a glaucous pale reverse. Fruit is produced after three years, viable seeds after five. These seeds are distributed by birds.
S. album occurs from coastal dry forests up to 700 m elevation. It normally grows in sandy or well drained stony red soils, but a wide range of soil types are inhabited. This habitat has a temperature range from 0 to 38 °C and annual rainfall between 500 and 3000 mm. S. album can grow up to 30 feet vertically. It should be planted in good sunlight and does not require a lot of water. The tree starts to flower after 7 years. When the tree is still young the flowers are white and with age they turn red or orange. The trunk of the tree starts to develop its fragrance after about 10 years of growth.
S. album has been the primary source of sandalwood and the derived oil. These often hold an important place within the societies of its naturalized distribution range. The central part of the tree, the heartwood, is the only part of the tree that is used for its fragrance. It is yellow-brown in color, hard with an oily texture and due to its durability, is the perfect material for carving. The outer part of the tree, the sapwood, is unscented. The sapwood is white or yellow in color and is used to make turner items. The high value of sandalwood has led to attempts at cultivation, this has increased the distribution range of the plant. The long maturation period and difficulty in cultivation have been restrictive to extensive planting within the range. Harvest of the tree involves several curing and processing stages, also adding to the commercial value. These wood and oil have high demand and are an important trade item.
Sandalwood oil has a distinctive soft, warm, smooth, creamy, and milky precious-wood scent. It imparts a long-lasting, woody base to perfumes from the oriental, woody, fougère, and chypre families, as well as a fixative to floral and citrus fragrances. When used in smaller proportions in a perfume, it acts as a fixative, enhancing the longevity of other, more volatile, materials in the composite. Sandalwood is also a key ingredient in the “floriental” (floral-ambery) fragrance family – when combined with white florals such as jasmine, ylang ylang, gardenia, plumeria, orange blossom, tuberose, etc.