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Sandalwood tree
The Australian sandalwood tree grows naturally in semi-arid areas of the south-west. Sandalwood is grown for many uses, including for its oil as well as for the wood itself, which is often used in carving and furniture making.

 

What you need to know about sandalwood

Name: sandalwood (Santalum spicatum).

Height: slow-growing; 5–10m.

Foliage: elongated, dark green, tough/leathery.

Climate: temperate to warm temperate; drought tolerant.

Soil: from clay to sandy loam; well-drained; tolerates mild salinity.

Position: full sun but tolerant of part shade.

Flowering: insignificant; green with dark red bracts in autumn and winter.

Feeding: use a long-term controlled-release native fertiliser.

Watering: water when conditions are hot and dry; good drainage is essential.

Appearance and characteristics of a sandalwood tree

Sandalwood is a large, slow-growing shrub or small tree reaching to 10m in perfect conditions, but more often growing to 6 or 7m tall. It has a lifespan of 15 years or more. The sandalwood tree usually has a clear trunk—that is, its branches are carried high on the tree. Note, sandalwood is not fire-resistant: it will not regenerate if damaged by bushfire.

Its leaves are leathery, dark green and grow in pairs on stems. The flowers are quite insignificant—green with dark red bracts. The fruits are much larger and showier! These are orange-red, 2–3cm across and have yellow to red flesh and a hard seed inside. To harvest the seeds, allow the fruits to dry completely, then rub the dried flower between the hands to release the seeds.

Sandalwood oil is highly valued. It is used in Buddhist ceremonies, incense, soaps, and aromatherapy, as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, and as a fixative in perfumes. The wood itself is sought after for carving and furniture making, where the pale sapwood and dark heartwood are greatly admired. Australia exports sandalwood from natural forests as well as small scale commercial plantations.

Close up of leaves on a sandalwood tree

How to grow sandalwood from seed

Sandalwood can be grown from seed, but not without some difficulty! It will not grow when placed in trays or pots of seed-raising mix in the “normal” manner.

The sandalwood tree has a parasitic root system and depends on the roots of a suitable host plant to establish. Commercial growers have had some success with the following method:

  1. Place seeds in dampened vermiculite (a sterile silicate material used in some growing media), then seal in zip-lock plastic bags. 
  2. When the seeds have germinated and the seedlings are large enough to handle, pot them up in the same pot as a host seedling. Suitable hosts include the raspberry jam tree (Acacia acuminata), rock sheoak (Allcasuarina huegeliana) and mulga (Acacia aneura). The raspberry jam tree is said to be the best of these options.
  3. When the sandalwood seedlings are large enough to go into the ground, plant the host close by (within 1m or so)—this will start a lifetime association between the two that is especially important during the early years.

How to grow sandalwood

The sandalwood tree has an extensive root system, so once they are planted out, it should be disturbed as little as possible. The roots will grow down quite deeply in light to medium sands and sandy loams, while they will be much closer to the surface and more widespread in clays.

  1. Choose an open, sunny position that receives protection from cold or salt-laden winds.
  2. When trees have been in the ground for a couple of years and appear to be growing well, their dependence on the host plant will reduce. If the canopies are competing for light, then the host may be pruned back to allow the sandalwood to develop without impediment.
  3. In rural situations, protect trees from stock because they will not recover from being grazed. They won’t regenerate if the foliage is burned off in a bushfire, either.

Caring for sandalwood

Effective watering of sandalwood

During the first few years after planting out, it is important to ensure your sandalwood tree is watered regularly during hot dry periods. It will become more drought-tolerant as it matures and its root system spreads deeper, but even then, water is recommended during prolonged hot, dry spells.

A mulch of forest litter over the roots will help keep roots cool and moist after watering in summer.

Good drainage is important—sandalwood does not like wet feet.

Feeding sandalwood

At the time of planting out and every 6 months after that (at the start of spring and autumn), add a controlled-release fertiliser formulated for native plants that has less than 3% phosphorus (P). Sandalwood grows naturally in medium- to poor-quality soils, so don’t overfeed it.

Diseases and pests affecting sandalwood

Sandalwood doesn’t seem to be susceptible to any pests or diseases that will affect its growth. Apparently, in the wild, parrots can damage the bark, but that’s not likely to be a problem in an urban location!

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Health & Safety

Asbestos, lead-based paints and copper chromium arsenic (CCA) treated timber are health hazards you need to look out for when renovating older homes. These substances can easily be disturbed when renovating and exposure to them can cause a range of life-threatening diseases and conditions including cancer. For information on the dangers of asbestos, lead-based paint and CCA treated timber and tips for dealing with these materials contact your local council's Environmental Health Officer or visit our Health & Safety page.

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