Shark Bay Sandalwood

Sandalwood fruit

Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) is best known for its aromatic oil and timber, used in the production of incense, perfumes and cosmetics. The harvesting of this small tree was one of Shark Bay’s earliest industries. It was harvested for more than 100 years, mainly for export to south-east Asia, until licences were phased out in the year 2000. Sandalwood fruit and nuts are edible (see below) and relished by humans and animals alike.

Sustainable harvest

In most areas sandalwood is harvested by being pulled, roots and all, from the ground. But Shark Bay sandalwood is unusual because it is able to coppice, or resprout from the stump after the tree is cut down. The new shoots start producing seed in 3–4 years, ensuring that harvesting could be sustained. In fact, harvesters working on Nanga pastoral lease in the early 1990s reworked trees that had been cut down during the 1930s!

Like other members of its family Shark Bay sandalwood is semi-parasitic, drawing most of its nourishment from the roots of surrounding plants. But it’s not clear why the Shark Bay sandalwood can resprout. Perhaps it’s because:

  • the deeper red sand loams encourage a bigger tap root system, which can support coppice growth;
  • host plants such as kurara or dead finish (Acacia tetragonophylla) are more beneficial than hosts favoured by sandalwood in other areas; or
  • the leaves of the Shark Bay sandalwood are bitter. This characteristic, unusual in sandalwood, is effective defence against native herbivores, grazing stock and rabbits.

Sandalwood harvest

Sandalwood being harvested prior to the ban in 2000.

Bush tucker

Sandalwood fruit is edible. The golden-brown fruits, 15–20 mm in diameter, have a thin fleshy layer which can be dried and stored. Sandalwood nuts are delicious when seasoned and roasted. The nuts also produce high quality oil, which some Aboriginal people use as liniment on aching joints.

Sandalwood fruits are a popular food of the emu, which swallows them whole. Emus are important in dispersing sandalwood nuts, with their dung creating ready-made planter pots for young seedlings.

Sandalwood nuts