People have prized sandalwood throughout history for its distinct aroma and therapeutic properties. It is the second most expensive wood in the world, and Indian culture highly reveres it. People harvest the heartwood of the tree for its unique scent, as well as its use in woodcarving. People use the essential oil from the tree in aromatherapy, cosmetics, and perfumes.
Unfortunately, the popularity of its aroma means the sandalwood tree is on the list of vulnerable species. Today, India protects the sandalwood and people can only harvest the trees under particular conditions. The trees take over 60 years to mature; illegally harvesting the bark created drastic preservation measures.
Characteristics and History of the Sandalwood Tree
Sandalwood, botanically known as Sandalum album , is native to Oceania, South Asia, and the South Pacific. Sandalwood can live up to 100 years old, and typically grows up to 33-50 feet in height. The leaves are oval, bright green, and have a leathery texture. The bark of the tree is a reddish brown color, and its flowers are purple-brown. Unlike the heartwood, the flowers don’t have any scent. The sandalwood tree is a semi-parasitic tree that thrives in dry and rocky terrain. Typical hosts of sandalwood include Indian Beech, Indian Rosewood, and Pala Indigo. 1
India has been the primary producer of sandalwood oil for more than 5000 years. Both the aroma of the heartwood and the oil are esteemed by those practicing Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism; the wood is often used to worship the God Shiva. Frequently, The heartwood is often carved into images of gods and mythological figures, as well as boxes, jewelry cases, combs, letter openers, and picture frames.
Spiritual Significance of Sandalwood
Sandalwood is part of religious ceremonies, including Buddhist prayers and meditation. It is an important part of a ‘homa’, which is a Sanskrit word meaning a ritual including offerings. 2
The fragrant heartwood can retain its fragrance for many years, even decades. It is an ideal wood for burning as incense. A typical incense in Hindu rituals was sandalwood chips with water and saffron. The incense created a meditative atmosphere, cleansing the air as an offering to deities.
In Buddhist rituals, sandalwood incense is burned to promote mindfulness and transform human desires. It is both an offering to the Buddha as well as a way to create a proper atmosphere for meditation. To this day, sandalwood incense is one of the most popular scents in Japan, China, and India. 3
While historically and spiritually significant to Eastern cultures, sandalwood has popularity in the West. As incense or essential oil, it promotes feelings of peace and a meditative atmosphere. Although it often doesn’t have the same religious significance as in Eastern countries, it does have important effects for people in the West.
Medicinal Use of the Sandalwood Tree
Sandalwood oil holds an important place in Ayurvedic, Tibetan, and Chinese medicine. People used it is to treat bronchitis, the common cold, fever, scabies, dysentery, inflammation of the mouth, infection of the urinary tract, and liver problems. Additionally, in alternative medicine, people value it for digestive, expectorant, carminative and muscle relaxing properties.
Within Indonesia, sandalwood was often one of the only treatments for illnesses until penicillin. In Hawaii, powdered heartwood mixed into a drink to treat diseases of the sex organs, while the leaves went into shampoo to treat lice. Ancient Egyptians used sandalwood oil in the embalming process. People used the nuts of Australian sandalwood trees to treat inflammation, sores and dry skin. In China, sandalwood treated skin issues, hemorrhoids, gonorrhea, diarrhea, and other health problems. 4
Sandalwood Essential Oil
The oil steam distilled from the sandalwood tree is pale yellow in color and has a fragrance that is sweet, spicy, warm and woody. The unique scent is due to the high concentration of α-santalol and β-Santalol. People use the oil both topically and aromatically for a wide variety of ailments. It has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antibacterial, antispasmodic, sedative and analgesic properties. Sometimes, people choose to ingest small amounts of sandalwood essential oil to ease digestive discomfort. You should do this with the supervision of a health professional.
Sandalwood essential oil topically speeds the healing of wounds, treats acne, and relieves muscle aches. Aromatically, it promotes a restful night of sleep, eases the pain of headaches and improves memory and concentration. With caution, you can take it in small amounts internally to help treat ulcers and ease digestive issues.
Ideas for Use:
- Add a few drops of sandalwood essential oil to a warm bath to help promote relaxation before bedtime
- Mix a drop or two of this essential oil to your daily moisturizer to reduce acne and promote clear skin
- Diffuse sandalwood essential oil throughout your home to create a meditative atmosphere, increase concentration or improve memory
- Mix this oil with a carrier oil and massage onto sore muscles to reduce pain and inflammation
The unique scent of sandalwood is relaxing, therapeutic, and can instantly transform the atmosphere of a room. Because of its vulnerable position, it is important to ensure that you are purchasing sandalwood incense and oil from reputable, sustainable sources.
It is easy to see why sandalwood has been held in such high regard throughout history. Its use in aromatherapy, cosmetics, perfumes, candles, and incense makes this powerful plant more accessible to all. Whether you are looking to promote feelings of peace and relaxation, rediscover youthful skin, ease the pain of sore muscles or alleviate headaches, sandalwood essential oil can help.
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