Name: Sandalwood (Santalum album)
Otherwise known as: Sander’s Wood
Habitat: A tree member of the Santalaceae family growing to about 18m in well-drained soil in forests in south west Asia. It is a slow-growing, semi-parasitic evergreen tree with oval-shaped opposed leaves on slender, drooping stems terminating in pale yellow to purple flowers producing pea-sized fruit that contains one seed. All parts of the tree yield an essential oil which has a very sweet balsamic aroma that has an excellent tenacity.
What does it do: Sandalwood is one of the oldest perfumes; it has been known for at least 4,000 years, traces of it have been found in Egyptian tombs and it is recorded as a medicament in ancient Sanscrit tablets. The oil contains santalols, sesquiterpenes, santalone, borneol and another of constituents. In Chinese medicine the oil is used to treat stomach cramps, gonorrhoea, choleraic difficulties, eczema and asthma. In the Ayurvedic tradition it is applied for urinary and respiratory infections, and for chronic diarrhea.
Sandalwood has long been recognised in the West as antidepressant, antiseptic, astringent, aphrodisiac, bactericidal, carminative, fungicidal, insecticidal, cicatrisant, sedative and tonic. Aromatherapists have applied the oil to give relief in cases of acne, dry chapped skin, bronchitis, laryngitis, cystitis, depression, insomnia, nervous tension and stress.
The plant is a favoured building material in Hindu temples and is commonly used to manufacture ornamental boxes and to fuel funeral pyres throughout southern India.
Recent research indicates that sandalwood oil is effective against staphylococcus aureus, which is a scourge in many European hospitals. Some establishments use a dilute solution of the oil to paint bed-frames and bedding material.
Sandalwood is extensively used as a component and fixative in soaps, detergents, cosmetics and perfumes. It is very popular in aftershave and is a major constituent in eastern religious incense as well as prominently featuring in soft and alcoholic drinks.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants