West Indian Sandalwood is a tropical American tree valued for its fragrant wood, which yields an essential oil used by the perfume, cosmetic and fragrance industries.
Its natural range extends from southern Florida to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and from Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras in Central American to northern parts of South America, with a distribution mostly confined to dry limestone and scrub forests.
It is a small, slow-growing tree reaching height of up to 12 m (39 ft ) in its natural habitat, with a slender trunk up to 30 cm (1 ft) in diameter, though is more commonly 5 to 10 m (16 to 32 ft) tall and has ascending branches that form a narrow, rounded or irregular crown. The bark is grey-brown and smooth.
The leaves are made up of three to five, dark glossy green oval leaflets of variable size, ranging in length from 4 to 13 cm (1.6 to 5 in). They release a strong, resinous aroma when crushed and are on the tree throughout the year, though some leaf-exchange occurs at the transition from the dry to rainy season.
The flowers are small, white, and are borne on branched clusters arising from the sides and ends of the branches. They bloom on and off throughout the year, though are most abundant in winter, which coincides with the dry season in its native range. They are followed by small, green egg-shaped fruit, 0.6 to 1.4 cm (0.2 to 0.6 in) long, becoming near black when ripe with a single seed inside.
The leaves, twigs and wood yield on steam distillation an essential oil known as 'Amyris oil'. Amyris oil is used as a fragrance component in cosmetics and perfumes, as well as in aromatherapy and sometimes serves as a substitute for true Sandalwood oil, from Santalum album.
Amyris oil is a pale- or brown-yellow viscous liquid with a slightly sweet, faintly woody cedar-like aroma. Oil yields range from 2 to 4%, depending on the proportion of new to old growth in the distilled material. Optimum yield and quality is obtained from mature wood that has been left to season or dry for five to six months, and storage of the oil for two to three months further improves its aroma.
The wood is dense and heavy, in the 900 to 1100 kg per cubic meter (62 to 68 lb per cubic ft) range, and has high natural resistance to decay and wood-boring insects, on account of its resinous qualities. However, the logs come in small diameter lengths, which makes sawing them into lumber impractical and, besides, are more valuable distilled for their essential oil.
Grows naturally in sub-humid to moderately humid tropical lowland to mid-elevation climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 16 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 600 to 1400 mm and a dry season of 4 to 8 months.
It is not usually cultivated, the material from which the oil is produced coming almost exclusively from wild trees. The soil in its natural habitat is known to be free-draining and neutral to alkaline in nature, generally in the pH 7.0 to 8.5 range. It has good tolerance to limestone soils.
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