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What is Sandalwood?

By Chelsie Vandaveer

The white santal (Santalum album Linnaeus) has been the source of highly prized wood and fragrant oil since at least the fifth century B.C. Known in the ancient Sanskrit as chandana, the wood and its valuable oil traveled from India along the ancient Silk Roads to Persia "sandal", to Greece "santalon", and to Rome "santalum". Perhaps best known in stick incense form, sandalwood ground into a paste is rolled around bamboo skewers. ("Sandalwood" Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)

The white santal is one of 8 or 9 species of sandalwoods ranging from India and Australia to the Pacific Islands. The trees are evergreen with opposite ovate leaves and hemiparasitic obtaining some of their nutrition from neighboring plants. Sandalwood is the heartwood, no longer living, where the tree lays down secondary metabolites, in this case, its fragrant yellow oil. When freshly cut, the heartwood is yellowish-brown; over time, it ages to rich reddish-brown. It requires a minimum of thirty years for the heartwood to form. The finest sandalwood comes from trees over sixty. ("Sandalwood Case", TED Case Studies, American University, 1997)

Sandalwoods in India belong to the government, a tradition since 1792 when the Sultan of Mysore declared them royal trees. In early traditions, the white santals were uprooted and the trunks stripped of their limbs. The logs were left on the ground until ants had eaten away the light-colored sapwood. ("Sandalwood", A Modern Herbal, Mrs. M. Grieve, reprinted 1996, Barnes & Noble)

The aged logs and roots were then collected for use — carving, woodworking, and oil extraction. Sandalwood carvings and cabinetry retain their fragrance; the steam distilled oil is used in perfumes, medicinals, and cosmetics. The wood paste is one of the ingredients for the varna (color implying caste) marks of the Brahmins, the spiritual leaders and teachers.

Sandalwood oil contains ±-santalol and ß-santalol, the sesquiterpene alcohols that give the essential oil its soft, sweet fragrance. The human olfactory nerves are specific to the scent of the santalols. If the chirality (arrangement of the atoms in the molecule) of the santalols is changed to the molecule's mirror image, the human nose cannot detect the fragrance. ("Chirality and Odor Perception", John C. Leffingwell, PhD, Leffingwell & Associates, 2001-2002)

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The above information does not refer to Palmolive products.