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Sandlwood Oil – Western Australia’s Liquid Gold.

June 6, 2018

It could be said that Australia was colonised in the same way that a wrecking ball might colonise a disused building, brutally.  Ok so that may be a little harsh but it’s hard not to look back at that time in history with some sadness at what happened after the first fleet landed, especially when you do it through the eyes of the Sandalwood tree.

Sandalwood holds a beautiful secret in its heartwood where its warm, rich, woody, syrup-like oil hides only to be released on the trees felling and subsequent distillation.  It takes a good many years for the heartwood and its oil to grow and mature,  fifteen to twenty-five at the very least, fifty more commonly but this does depend on the species and in Australia the lead species is Santalum Spicata.  The tree can then go on and live for over one hundred years thriving in the hot dry climates of the Western Australian planes.

The Australian Sandalwood tree grows wild in some of the most remote areas in Australia such as Western Australia’s Gibson desert, but it was also unfortunate to thrive closer to the west coast than that, closer to the ships that heralded the start of a new era for Australia, as a British colony.

Modern Australians equate Western Australia with the mining boom but before minerals there were trees or ‘green gold’ (Australia’s national colours are green and gold, maybe that’s why, I’ve no idea actually).  The  value of Sandalwood was missed on the first colonisers who allegedly chopped trees down for fence posts, fire wood and building materials but it didn’t take long before word of this woods true value spread.  Sandalwood proved to be a boon for the colony and, on realising the market value the settlers wasted no time at all in setting up gangs to harvest the trees and processing facilities to prepare them for export, mainly to Singapore.   Wood was shipped out to markets all over the world and as the trees sailed out, the money flooded in – something the new colony urgently needed to become sustainable.  The global appetite for Sandalwood seemed to be as insatiable as the early colony’s thirst for hard cash! The trees continued to come tumbling down for a while longer anyway until high government taxes and global over-supply ground things to a halt.  Yes, the humble but beautiful Sandalwood tree benefited from an eight year hiatus in cutting thanks to over-enthusiastic taxing of the local industry combined with a flood of Sandalwood entering the global market so while the trees rejoiced, the locals sat waiting nervously for their fortunes to change and they did.  A combination of crop failings in India and war in the region led to another supply chain tightening and the game of Sandalwood hunting was back on only this time Western Australia had become a penal colony, the population had doubled and other industries such as wool and wheat production plus cattle grazing were competing for land and able-bodied labour.

More than 50,000 tones of wood was exported from Western Australia between 1890-1900 but by the end of the 1920’s it was becoming obvious that things needed to be managed in a bit more of an orderly fashion and by 1929 the Sandalwood act was passed and the government took control, making it illegal for Sandalwood to be pulled (harvested) without a licence unless the tree was grown on a managed plantation.  To this date, the Australian Government still maintains an interest and control over the industry aided by increased fines and co-ordination with the Forest Products Commission who also manage bush regeneration and, after a change in the structure of contracts in 2016, are focused on creating  opportunities for Aboriginal participation (which many might say is about time…). These legislative attempts to make the industry sustainable are sort-of paying off but concerns still exist around the true impacts of the early settlers ‘work’ on the long-term viability of Australian Sandalwood. You see, while plantation timber is a good, manageable option, wild tree populations are required to maintain diversity of seed stock and to improve and strengthen the crop going forward (or else we go backwards…).  The future of Sandalwood does indeed look like being one where local, Aboriginal, ancestral knowledge and managed plantations will need to work together to secure a better and more sustainable future for the entire community and country rather than for the benefit of just a few.  This type of partnership has been realised by the Dutjahn group who are well placed to bridge the gap between wild harvest old growth trees and modern plantations.

So that’s the wood, what about the oil?

The distilling of Sandalwood oil was happening in Australia since 1875 according to the website of Oil Distiller Mt Romance,   ( a company that has just found its self in financial bother calling in the receivers last year)  but it wasn’t until around 1922 that things really started to kick off in the oil distilling world thanks to a company called the Plaistow Confectionary Co.   There seems to be a bit of scandal about how they came to understand how to distill the oil.  Apparently they took over the Sandalwood distillery from a chap named Braddocks sometime around 1922 but by 1924 they were in court trying to gag Braddock who, they claimed, had stolen intellectual property off them and was seeking to use it to his advantage.  The trove court report is here.  

It’s a bit hard to work out exactly what was going on and how but it does look like a chap called J.H Marr (a chemist who worked for Plaimar Ltd) was the chap who worked out the best method for oil extraction.  Rather than steam distill the oil he was soaking shavings and sawdust in a solvent and using that to extract the oil. Oil export records from the Forest Department Annual reports have proved impossible to find for this period but records from 1945-1971 show fluctuating oil sales with a maximum of 34,726 pounds of oil sold in 1948 falling to just over 3000 pounds sold in 1970.

I can’t find a lot of information about what happened between the 1970-1980 but by 1983 the first plantation trials of Santalum Album was planted in Kununurra, WA and with that trial being successful, the first commercial plantation was established in 1999.  In 1999 there were apparently 50 hectares planted out and that had grown to 2545 hectares by 2008 – the lions share of the growth in that species.  Tests on oil quality back in 2006 confirmed that the trees are producing good quality oil but with yields varying from less than 0.5% to around 7%.  Keeping in mind the tree has to be pulled for the oil to be measured, getting accurate data by increasing the sample size can only be done by killing the samples which is not an attractive prospect.  Catching up with this crop in 2013 we see issues being raised by the ‘Green Left’ publication who are concerned about irrigation, jobs and land use in the Ord river region – where this plantation is situated. I found this news item interesting as it just shows that even ‘green’ agribusiness ventures are not always loved by those with Green politics which, on one level makes sense but on another makes me wonder if it is ever possible to please all the people all of the time…

Moving on to 2017 and we are starting to see harvesting in the Kununurra region and that too looks to be embroiled in some controversy. Quintis, one of the companies mentioned in this news article is a company also known as Mt Romance, a name that many Australian essential oil users will recognise.  As I mentioned above in this article, this company is surrounded by financial issues at present and their future, and the future of their Sandalwood oil projects is looking a bit shaky.  Their 2016 harvest of 99 hectares yielded over 300 tons of heartwood which was apparently in line with expectations. However, the next harvest in 2017 of 81 hectares only yielded 140 tons of heartwood, well below predictions.  This just goes to show what a fickle business this agricultural lark is. Whether this heartwood was sold on the open market as is or processed into oil at their Mt Romance distillery is not something I can confirm here but what I can say is that in the 2016 company report the oil distillery is looking financially shaky. One thing that I did have a chuckle about was the mention that one of their clients was Young Living oils.  I chuckle because I’m often told that Young Living has the best quality oils, sourced from their own plantations etc…  That may be so for some oils but for this one the Young Living customers are getting the same stuff as practically everyone else in Australia and around the world.

The other big player in Australian grown Indian Sandalwood oil is a company called Santanol. This company is majority owned by an investment company called KKR who are basically interested in making money, lots of money.  Let’s hope the trees do that for them when harvest time rolls around.

Meanwhile Santalum Spicatum, Australian Sandalwood oil is still predominantly being produced by Mt Romance down closer to Perth but again, that company is going through financial issues so who knows what the future ownership will look like. In 2005 there were 12,000 Kg of this oil being produced over 7050 hectares with supply balancing demand.  I can’t find any later figures on oil volumes to be honest.

Looking into the history and current reality of Australian grown Sandalwood oil has been a bit of an eye opener really.  I think, as a cosmetic chemist and ingredient user it is easy to take things like a little bottle of essential oil for granted but after reading into the trials and tribulations of getting that oil to market I’ll no doubt be a bit more respectful of it.

So what else has been learned about the Sandalwood tree?  

The tree is hemiparasitic and requires a host tree in order to establish roots as it can’t fix its own nitrogen.  As such it is usually planted next to a specific type of acacia tree (acacia Acuminata) which provides the young Sandalwood tree with food, water and shelter while it gets established.  The Sandalwood tree  is a relatively small, scraggy looking thing but it is quite rough on its host and often needs 2-3 feed-trees to leach nutrients from for it to survive.  Much research has gone into selecting the perfect host and host density and that has helped modern plantations to become more efficient, so much so in fact that tree survival is around the 98% mark in well-managed plantations.

Another interesting Sandalwood tree fact was discovered also when looking for ways to germinate the seedlings.  It was discovered that a cute little creature called a Woylie is involved in hoarding and distributing the seeds in a way that facilitates their germination naturally, something that scientists have been able to replicate, at least in part, via machinery in new growth plantations.

Sadly, like many native species, wild populations of Woylie have been dramatically reduced by predation and loss of habitat but it is hoped that with more mindful plantation practices and land management plus fencing and reserve areas these cute and hard working little beings will not only survive but thrive into the future.

Scotia 2012

Another interesting Sandalwood fact is that the tree produces fruit that can also be collected and harvested for oil.  Rather than waiting the 15-25 years for heartwood, the tree only takes 4 years to produce fruit.  That fruit yields a beautiful vegetable oil, perfect for skincare and other uses and thankfully, the tree does not need to be felled for us to enjoy that.  In addition to being a good skincare oil, this Sandalwood fruit oil also provides a sustainable income stream for plantation owners who would otherwise be waiting a very long time between pay cheques.

So is the future of Sandalwood oil in Western Australia or what?

Both Australian and East Indian Sandalwood oil grow in many parts of the world but it looks likely, due to the investment of the government, the infrastructure and the intellectual property that’s in place, the state of W.A will remain a key player in this global game.  However, it is clear that while the product may be wildly popular and expensive, being a player in this industry is not easy.  Change in land ownership rights are likely as legal challenges under the  native title act continue to right the wrongs of our (white) ancestors.  Then there’s climate change.  Farmers will know that the climate is ALWAYS changing as that’s what climate does but most people would agree that things are changing faster and more dramatically now than they have ever done before (in living memory) and who knows if that will make the growing of this beautiful oil easier or more challenging.  On top of that we have growing competition from synthetic Sandalwood alternatives.  The perfumery industry doesn’t necessarily mind if the Sandalwood aroma is grown or manufactured and as that’s still the lions share of the industry, that could prove to be its downfall. That said, if everyone opts to ‘go natural’ then the up-swing in demand might squeeze the supply chain so much that farming practices resort to being unsustainable and short-termist.  There most be a balance to be had somewhere.  What is looking ever likely is that we will see more diversity in the management and ownership side of the business as we move into the future and that can only be a good thing, as the more minds we have looking to protect, improve and sustain this industry the better in my mind at least.

I hope that you have enjoyed this potted history of Australian Sandalwood and if you want to read the primary sources that I used to find out most of the facts listed above please follow the links.  I might not have shared everything, I can’t remember, but I’ve tried to link to all the big chunks of info that I could find.

Happy formulating/ sniffing or oil procuring and don’t forget to try the Sandalwood nut oil, it’s lovely.

Amanda x



History of Australian Sandalwood Industry. 

Another look at the Sandalwood industry of WA.

RIRDC Sandalwood Industry Report 2006

Government Review

Essential oil quality. Westcorp


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