Australia’s industry has a long history by domestic standards. In fact, it is one of Western Australia’s first significant export industries, with shipments of a native sandalwood Santalum spicatum sent to China in 1844 for use in the production of incense. The Western Australian industry now commands around 40% of the international market.
The Australian sandalwood is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree, growing to between 3-15 metres high. It is a root hemi-parasite and therefore requires a host tree for healthy growth. The host trees are usually Acacias, which provide water and nutrients to the sandalwood delivered by a unique root connection called haustoria.
Currently sandalwood is harvested almost exclusively from natural ‘wild’ stands in the Western Australian Rangelands. However, future supply will most likely be complemented by trees sourced from public and private plantations, and individual farmers.
The key product of value from the tree is the heartwood, which contains most of the oil and scented wood for which the tree is known. Sandalwood timber is used in a range of products ranging from incense burning joss sticks to potpourri and marquetry. Alternatively, the timber may be used to extract oil. Sandalwood oil is used in a range of products including soap, shampoos, beauty and medicinal products, and French perfumes.
Supplies of Indian sandalwood (S. album) have been declining over many decades due to unsustainable harvesting practices in its native environments of India and south east Asia. This has provided an opportunity for Australian wood to enter markets with approximately 2,000 tonnes harvested annually from native stands in Western Australia for export to Asia.
It is a developing industry in Western Australia and the tree is proving a popular farm forestry species due to its high value, good performance in low rainfall areas and environmental benefits. A commercial Indian sandalwood plantation has been established in the Ord region of Western Australia and plantings are proposed for the tropical north of the Northern Territory and Queensland. Another native species (S. lanceolatum) grows in Queensland but little is known about its status as a commercial enterprise.
The decision to use harvested trees for timber or oil is made by the processor, in response to customer demand.
Facts and figures
- Sandalwood has been used for religious and cultural purposes in Asia for centuries
- It has a highly fragrant timber, valued for both its wood and oil
- The wood is used to produce joss sticks for incense burning, while the oil is used in perfumes and medicinal products
- Two species are native to Australia: Santalum spicatum in Western Australia and S. lanceolatum in Queensland. Indian sandalwood, S. album, is also used in plantations in Australia
- It is an increasingly popular farm forestry tree in the Western Australian Wheatbelt
- The Australian industry commands around 40% of world market share
Major commercial production is currently based in Western Australia with some new plantations being developed in North Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Approximately 2,000 tonnes of sandalwood is harvested annually in Western Australia, most from natural ‘wild’ stands in the Rangelands region of the state. However, with an estimate 15,000-23,000 hectares under production on farms in the Western Australian Wheatbelt, it will likely develop into an alternative agricultural industry for many farmers. The area of plantings in Western Australia’s agricultural zone has increased steadily since 1999 with estimates that the estate is likely to reach 50,000 hectares by the year 2020.
Around 2,500 hectares of Indian sandalwood have been established on irrigated land in the Ord River Irrigation Area in Western Australia, funded by managed investment schemes. Despite a survival rate of only 20% in some instances, the first harvest was undertaken in 2013 with reports of good quality product.
Another native species (S. lanceolatum) grows in Queensland but it is not an established commercial industry and information about the level of the resource available or the amount on private land is not easily known. Harvest from Crown lands in Queensland has remained at around 300 tonnes per annum over the last decade.
There are approximately 400 ha of trial plantations of both S. spicatum and S. album in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.