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Growing Sandalwood with a host

By Andrew Mole

Joss sticks and Australian agriculture could not, on reflection, have been any further apart in my mind. The make-up of joss sticks, for that matter, had never entered my mind. And yet, scratch beneath the surface of those sweetly scented sticks most assoc-iated with my schoolboy trips to places such as Bendigo or Ballarat and their Chinese history, and you find a fascinating and very low profile export success story.

Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of commercial sandalwood - and has been harvesting and exporting the stuff for more than 140 years - and much of today’s production heads to Taiwan and China where it eventually becomes smoking joss sticks in temples, homes and at religious ceremonies.

Western Australian sandal-wood (Santalum spicatum) is a small, four-metre parasitic tree that occurs naturally in the state’s wheat belt but which has largely been replaced by broadacre cropping and grazing. This has been due to the fact that these crops produce an annual cash flow whereas sandal wood can take decades to grow.

Today, however, sandalwood is making a major comeback through invest-ment farms, share farms and commercial production as Australia seeks to resurrect this historic trade and produce what is now Australia’s most highly priced export wood.

Perfumes from the houses of Yves St. Laurent, Calvin Klein and Christian Dior all contain high percentages of sandalwood, and the demand for this exotically sweet oil just keeps getting stronger. Sandalwood has a deep, sweet, woody and long-lasting scent, and blends well with florals such as geranium, rose and tuberose; resinous oils such as myrrh, patchouli and vetiver; other woods, such as rosewood; citrus oils, such, neroli and bergamot; spices, such as black pepper and clove.

Indian Sandalwood traditionally is the most sought after of all the sandalwood species because of its high oil content. The oil is also used as a base for high value perfumes and in medicine. The sandalwood sawdust powder is used in joss sticks and sandalwood’s furniture and carving properties are highly prized.

Sandalwood has high religious significance in Hindu culture. Sandalwood now is a rare timber. Short supply has been created through the non-sustainable logging of natural occurring timber through its native areas - Asia and Oceania to the point where Australia now exports plants to India.

The prized properties of the sandalwood tree are concentrated in the heart-wood. Heartwood can be defined as “the inner most and oldest wood, no longer functional for water transport and food storage, often characterised by coloured deposits of resinous, phenolic and other compounds which are frequently associated with enhanced durability.” (Forest Trees of Australia, 1994).

There is marked variability between sites and within sites in the percentage of a bole that has been converted to heartwood which suggests that the timing and speed of the transition is genetically controlled.

The idea of selectively breading to increase heartwood production has been used in India on Santalum album for decades and is now being used on the Australian species. Another way to speed up and therefore maximise heartwood production, particularly in young trees, is to stress the plant. This may be through water deficiency or other means.

Andrew Roda of Forest Rewards Management is one of the people behind the reviving sandalwood industry and is growing more than 1200ha of sandalwood on two properties in the Avon Valley outside Northam in Western Australia.

You can buy a hectare of his trees through the company’s prospectus. The prospectus makes it clear that the sandalwood industry is not a fly-by-night trade with promises of massive, and very rapid, returns.“This is a long-haul business with a new generation of investors which will return between 8% and 12%,” Andrew says.“WA is now an established supplier to a global market. The market is real and the product is real. It has the support of the government in this state, which has put a lot of behind the scenes work into sandalwood and we now also have value added alternatives here,” he says.“This area is therefore positioned well for the establishment of sandal-wood plantations to supplement the harvesting of natural stands and is now showing an enormous promise.”

The most suitable areas to grow sandalwood on farmland are the medium rainfall (400 mm plus) regions of the WA wheat belt. Trees perform best in a loam-over-clay, duplex soil type but will also grow on gravels, yellow sands and red sands.

The site should be water-gaining but well drained. Saline, waterlogged or heavy clay soils are not suitable.

Andrew says sandalwood harvesting takes from five years to as many as 30, depending on requirements and demand. Although sandalwood will survive on its own it thrives in its more parasitic role and the best host species are the nitrogen fixers - especially the acacias used by Forest Rewards Management. Anything that can be done in the farming situation to increase the speed with which the sandalwood attaches to the host decreases the total time to harvest. Similarly, anything that can be done to make sure that the host thrives and grows quickly will also shorten the total time top harvest.“Seeds are collected from both remnant stands in the more arid areas of the state and from replantings,” Andrew says.

“The acacia are planted on mounds and nine months later we plant the sandalwood, which is like a large nut, about 30 centimetres from the host,” he says.“Sandalwood germinate easily and we plant between two and four seeds for every acacia and their roots grow down and connect with the host via a suction cap type fixture.“Over a 10-year period the sandalwood becomes the dominant plant but we can do our first harvest around five years, much of which is currently going to India,” Andrew added.“We conduct fairly heavy thinning this way but as the plantation matures more oil accumulates in the trees which is a double bonus because it also protects the plants from pests such as termites,” he says.
“We have more trouble with rabbits and roos when the plants are young and have to have control programs in place.”

With no significant long-term natural pests and its hardy nature making it safe in variable weather conditions, sandalwood is proving to be every agriculturalist’s dream - a valuable and sustainable commodity.

Sold by the tonne for between $7000 and $10,000 sandalwood is mostly exported as timber. Andrew says it is loaded right into shipping containers at plantations and trucked to the ports for destinations overseas.

Value adding is also emerging with the establishment of a distillation business at Fremantle where the oil is extracted via steam distillation in much the same way as tea tree oil except in this case the oil is in the timber itself.

This produces a clear, yellowish tinged oil of medium to thick consistency as the base product. Sandalwood is hand harvested in its early years; with chainsaws and a trailer, and by five years an average plant will provide five kilograms of timber. As plants get older they are completely uprooted during harvest as even the root systems have value. Older trees, around 15 to 20 years, will yield around 20kg including the roots and are more often harvested by a back end hoe.

As the wealth and disposable income of Asia grows so will the opportunity for sandalwood export.


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