Western Australian Sandalwood

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Uilarac, Waang, Wolgol

Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), one of several species of sandalwood native to Australia, is a shrub or small tree, about 6 meters tall, that grows on a variety of soil types in the semi-arid lowlands of Western and Southern Australia. It is a root hemiparasite, meaning that it partially relies on the roots of a host plant (often Acacia acuminata) to obtain water and nutrients. Its leaves are grey-green and leathery, oblong, with a smooth margin. The fruit—which is technically a drupe, not a nut—is round, 2-3 centimeters in diameter, red- to orange-brown in color, and composed of an edible kernel surrounded by a hard shell, covered in a thin fleshy layer. It is considered ripe when it has fallen to the ground, but can also be harvested directly from the tree once it has dried and its color faded to brown.

Among the animals responsible for the dispersal of Australian sandalwood seeds are the emu and the woylie, or brush-tailed bettong (Bettongia penicillata). The woylie is a small marsupial that once lived across more than half of Australia but now, due to introduced predators and grazers and the destruction of its native habitat, lives only in a handful of small reserves in the far Southwestern corner of the continent. It is considered critically endangered. Woylies cache sandalwood nuts, some of which germinate and grow into adult trees. Woylies play a critical role in the natural regeneration of sandalwood populations, and their decline is one of the factors responsible for the poor regeneration of sandalwood trees in recent decades.

Beginning in the early 19th century, European settlers in Western Australia recognized the commercial potential of Australian sandalwood for essential oil and wood, and began harvesting it in huge quantities for export to China. Even today, Australian sandalwood accounts for about half of global sandalwood supply. The production of sandalwood essential oil—popular as an ingredient in perfumes and incense, and as a cosmetic and therapeutic product—requires that whole trees be pulled, since both the roots and the heartwood are rich in oil. This has led, over the past 2 centuries, to a sharp decline in the wild population of Australian sandalwood and, since 1929, the harvest is closely monitored by the state—harvesting wild sandalwood without a license from the Department of Parks and Wildlife is illegal. The area of commercial plantations has grown considerably in recent years.

Aboriginal people have valued Australian sandalwood for thousands of years as a source of food and medicine, and use the wood for ritual burning and carving. Sandalwood nuts can be consumed raw or roasted and have a creamy, nutty taste similar to a macadamia, hazelnut, or almond. While the wood of the sandalwood tree contains an essential oil, the nuts contain a fatty oil composed primarily of oleic acid (an omega-9) and ximenynic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Aboriginal Australians use the nut as a remedy for both internal and external ailments: it can be ingested to relieve joint pain, or crushed and applied topically to cuts, sores, lesions, burns, and dry skin. The nut oil can be used as a liniment for aching joints.

A growing interest in the conservation of Australian sandalwood and in its gastronomic potential has led to an increase in the availability of sandalwood nuts on the market, although the number of suppliers is still small. Planting sandalwood trees for nuts, incorporating them into agroforestry schemes, and harvesting nuts while the trees grow large enough to be harvested for wood and essential oil (this takes a minimum of 20 years), can help generate income for local communities and satisfy the growing demand for nuts, all while relieving pressure on the wild sandalwood population and the people who depend on it.

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Fruit, nuts and fruit preserves

Indigenous community:Noongar