Red Sandalwood is a timber and fuelwood tree with a wide native distribution, its natural range extending from India, through Southeast Asia to Australia and the Western Pacific. From there, it was introduced into countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, where it has become well-established and naturalised.
It reaches up to 25 m (82 ft) tall in its natural forests, though is more commonly 10 to 15 m (32 to 50 ft) and under favourable growing conditions develops a single trunk supports a wide-spreading, rounded crown. In the drier parts of its range, however, it is often forked or multi-trunked, especially on nutrient poor soils. The bark is dark brown and lightly fissured.
The leaves are 30 to 60 cm (1 to 2 ft) long and twice-feathered, being made up of many, dull green, oblong leaflets with blunt ends, alternately arranged along the ends of the branches. In seasonally dry areas they fall off the tree to conserve water.
The flowers are small and insignificant, creamy-white to pale yellow, tightly packed in narrow, tail-like clusters of variable lengths that arise at the ends of the branches. They come into bloom from late summer to early winter and are followed by slim seedpods up to 25 cm (10 in) long.
The seedpods become dark brown when mature then split lengthwise, the two halves curling and coiling to expel the seed, which are small, round, hard and glossy red.
It produces a dark reddish brown, wavy patterned wood that is medium-weight to heavy, in the density range of 600 to 800 kgs per cubic meter (37 to 50 lbs per cubic ft) and with high natural resistance to rot and decay, making it suitable for both indoor and outdoor use.
The sawn timber is used in its native range mostly for making furniture and cabinets. The roundwood is more widely used and is cut for in-ground poles and posts, including fence posts as well as for firewood and charcoal making, for which it is well suited.
It was once commonly planted to shade coffee and cacao crops, on account of its fast growth and moderate shading, allowing some sunlight to pass through to the crops below. However, this use is now discouraged due to its weediness.
The shiny red seed are softened in boiling water and threaded to make fashion jewellery, including necklaces, bracelets and other wearable fashion, sometimes intricately designed.
Grows naturally in moderately humid to humid tropical lowland climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 18 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1200 to 6000 mm and a dry season of 5 months or less. However, it reaches its best development as a timber tree in areas with annual rainfall of 1800 mm or more.
New plants are usually grown from seed, which are sometimes slow to germinate and are best pre-treated by immersing them in boiling water for around a minute, or by leaving them to soak in tap water for a day or two. Seedlings and trees perform best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to neutral nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure.
It is listed as a high weed risk species in more than one reference publication, due to its high rate of seed production and the speed with which dense stands form, displacing native flora and preventing their regeneration. Humans are largely responsible for its spread outside of its native range, mainly by importing and cultivating it as an ornamental and with seed-eating birds the main dispersal agent. It is assessed as a high weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
The seed are reportedly poisonous if ingested.
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