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Characteristics of Red Sandalwood Tree (Pterocarpus santalinus) in the Wild

Characteristics of Red Sandalwood Tree (Pterocarpus santalinus) in the Wild

Red sandalwood or Red sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus) is a species of Pterocarpus endemic to the southern Eastern Ghats mountains in South India.

The tree is prized for the stunning red color of its wood, and in recent years there has been a sharp increase in the use of red sandalwood as a component of incense, especially in western regions. This tree is different from the Aromatic Sandalwood tree (Santalum album) which is a tree native to South India.

Red sandalwood grows in shale soil layers, at an altitude of about 750 m above sea level, and in semi-arid climatic conditions providing characteristic wavy grain boundaries. Wood pieces with wavy grain edges are graded as class “A”. Red sandalwood with wavy grain edges sells for a higher price than standard wood.

Pterocarpus santalinus or Red sandalwood is listed as an endangered species by the IUCN Redlist, due to overexploitation of the wood in South India. However, the species was reclassified as Near Threatened in 2018, as the exact scale of its losses is unknown. This species is also listed in Appendix II of CITES, which means a certificate is required to export it, which should only be granted if such trade does not harm the survival of the species.


Characteristics of Red Sandalwood Leaf

Pterocarpus santalinus Leaf
Source: Geetha Ramaswami

The leaves are alternate, 3-9 cm long, trifoliate with three leaflets.

Characteristics of Red Sandalwood Flower

Pterocarpus santalinus Flower
Source: Rishi Valley Biodiversity

The flowers are small, yellow, and produced in clusters.

Characteristics of Red Sandalwood Fruit

Pterocarpus santalinus Fruit
Source: Chief RedEarth

The fruit is a pod 6-9 cm long and contains one or two seeds.

Characteristics of Red Sandalwood Tree

Pterocarpus santalinus Tree
Source: V.Arun

Red sandalwood is a small tree that can grow up to 8 meters high with a trunk diameter of 50-150 cm. This tree grows quickly when young, reaching 5 meters in height in three years, even on degraded soil. It is intolerant of frost (kills at -1 °C), and requires full sun all day.

Benefits of Red Sandalwood

Red Sandalwood was historically highly prized in China, especially during the Qing Dynasty, and was referred to in Chinese as Zitan (紫檀) and spelled Tzu-t’an. A beautiful chair made of red sandalwood can be seen today in China’s Forbidden City in Beijing, inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and was once used by the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

Due to its rarity, furniture made from red sandalwood is difficult to find and is expensive. This wood has been one of the most valuable woods for thousands of years.

In India, red sandalwood is one of the main and profitable markets for smugglers, because the price of this wood is expensive in China. Since the export of red sandalwood is illegal in India, an underground market is growing and every year there are several arrests of those who try to smuggle this wood to China.

Another alternative to red sandalwood is its relatives, namely Dalbergia louvelii, Dalbergia maritima, and Dalbergia normandii. All similar species that are traded are called Bois de rose or Violet rosewood which when cut is bright purple red which then turns dark purple after being exposed to air for a while. Dalbergia wood has a distinctive fragrant aroma.

Red sandalwood has been used to make the bridge and also the neck of the Japanese musical instrument, the Shamisen (三味線).

Pterocarpus santalinus is used in traditional herbal medicine as an antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, antihyperglycemic, anthelmintic, aphrodisiac, and tonic, to treat bleeding and dysentery.

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