For over 4000 years, the Sandalwood tree has played a significant part in Eastern culture as a material for art and artifacts, a medicine, and a divine aroma. Sandalwood products are obtained from the sandalwood tree (Santalum album), which is a member of the Santalaceae family native to southern tropical Asia. It is an evergreen growing to a height of 9 meters, with leathery leaves, long slender brangches, and small purple flowers. The tree also happens to be parasitic, relying on the nutrien-gathering ability of one of several other tree species for its sustenance. Due to its seemingly strict set of environmental conditions and its parasitic nature, the extremely versatile Sandalwood tree is quite difficult to propagate.
One of the more highly-prized products of Sandalwood is the essential oil it yields. Most commonly through steam distillation, a rich, deep, sweet, woody oil is produced that is values the world over. It is, in fact, one of the world's most widely used aromatics - for it's scent in perfumery, for it's therapeutic effects in Chinese, Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine systems, and for it's ability to center the mind in meditative yogic traditions. The source for this wonderful oil is becoming scarce, however. It is the heartwood, the very center, of the roots of the tree that produce oil of the highest quality and demand - a sandalwood tree will not survive harvest. Pressure on the world's population of Santalum album is growing; The tree takes nearly 30 years to mature before yielding oil of significant value, and because of its stringent environmental demands, successful cultivation is extremly difficult.
Oil of the album species has a unique aroma with excellent tenacity and superior fixative properties. There are other varieties available, but the oil from this increasingly rare tree is considered the most important therapeutically. The Mysore region of eastern India is thought to produce the highest quality of this essential oil, though it's harvest is known to be creating a strain on the area's environment. Local forestry officials have been killed over the illegal poaching of Sandalwood, and 'black-market' trading continues.
There is hope, however, for meeting the world's demands - Recently, an oil of the austrocaledonia species has been produced on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu from successfully cultivated trees. This oil has a warm aroma, with a woody, smoky scent that has been said to remind one of 'being at the beach' - a useful base note in perfume and cosmetic blends.
In the West, Sandalwood is perhaps best known in the west as a natural, woody, sweet body perfume used 'as is', or as a familiar aroma in manufactured personal items. In the East, however, Sandalwood's importance in cultural and spiritual traditions cannot be overstated. The wood is carved into furniture, religious icons, used to build temples and burned as incense in a great variety of ceremonies. The oil is used to anoint the dead, helping their transition to the next life. In Burma, women sprinkle it on passersby on the last day of the year for the release of sins. In Hindu marriages, Sandalwood is burned in a tent such that the smoke surrounds the bridal couple.
In the traditional Indian medicine system of Ayurveda, Sandalwood is valued for it's ability to cool the fire of pitta. It is indicated for inflammatory conditions, such as inflamed skin, or intestinal and genitor-urinary conditions that require cooling. Modern aromatherapy considers the oil an effective skin care agent for dry skin, general irritation, and acne; it can help in cases of bronchitis, catarrh, dry persistent coughs, laryngitis and sore throat; it may relieve diarrhea and nausea, and can be supportive in cases of cystitis.
Beyond the physical body, Sandalwood essential oil well known as a tonic for the hyper-active mind. In practical terms, the oil is considered an anti-depressant, relieving hot, agitated emotional states, and assisting release from over-thinking and worry. More esoterically, the aroma is considered 'divinely sweet' and softly balsamic, characteristics which evoke the grounding nature of the Earth element. It is used by yogis in the East and West to bring stillness in meditation - a serene mental state unifying conciousness of the body, mind and spirit. From this quiet, unified state, one may be able to gain greater perspective and understanding on what is known as the 'Univeral Self'.
Adding to the oils' grace, it happens to be one of the few aromatics that improves with age. Like a fine wine, one may purchace a favorite vintage, put it on the shelf, and be assured it will only be richer when finally taken down. Because of it's growing scarcity, responsible use is suggested - but using a little is highly recommended.