Raising Quandong and Sandalwood Nursery Stock
Practical, hands-on information about propagating and growing sandalwood and quandong trees.
….The place was an absolute mess. We decided we would do something about greening it. Personally, I was a little reticent. My wife, Lyn, said, “There’s a blank canvas there, we can do what we like with it.” She was right into plants and propagating.
Somewhere along the line, fairly early in the piece, we decided we would have a look at sandalwoods, because we had been reading somewhere that these actually were native to the Darling Scarp and east, before white settlement. It was found that most of them in the hills were pulled within a couple of years of white settlement in Australia, and that the sandalwood pullers then moved east. In fact, the wheat belt was opened up by sandalwood pullers. People who were going out to select their new wheat farms followed the sandalwood pullers' tracks to get to where they had to go. The government of Western Australia very quickly learned that they were onto a winner with sandalwood. They sent out teams ahead of the sandalwood pullers to dig wells to provide water for them.
The upshot of it all was that sandalwood all but disappeared in a few short years. They were still pulling sandalwood in parts of the wheat belt up until the 1930s. In fact, to this day, they are still pulling sandalwood. It tapered off fairly quickly from about the second world war onwards. We are now down to three licensed sandalwood pullers in WA.
The interesting thing about sandalwood is that its export and sale is completely controlled by the WA government, for all sandalwood sales in Australia. That includes sandalwood from Queensland and elsewhere. The WA government in the early years of settlement set up the Western Australian Sandalwood Company, which has now been absorbed into CALM. CALM still holds the monopoly. So you can't just go out and rip up a sandalwood tree wherever you find it and expect to sell it, because CALM will ask where you got it from and then fine you.
If you want to use a sandalwood tree to produce sandalwood oil, you must kill the tree. The reason for that is that the best oil comes from the seeker root, which is the root that the tree uses to find its host with. Sandalwood pullers generally dig around the tree to find where the biggest seeker root is going and pull it in that direction, to get up as much of the seeker root as they can.
You can still get sandalwood oil of a lower grade out of the wood, but it has to be macerated. You have to grind it up into fairly fine sawdust to do that. Caroline will tell you later that that is done quite successfully down in Albany.
So we went ahead and got some sandalwoods from a local propagator who probably knew even less about sandalwood than we did, which we realised after the event. We got our sandalwood trees in and proceeded to reticulate them. Not a lot: we were giving them about a litre per tree per day in summer. But the results were quite spectacular. We were expecting to take ten, twelve, fifteen years before they matured and got fruit. We were stunned and amazed at the beginning of September last year to see the first fruit on the sandalwood trees, about three and a half years after we planted them. Their fourth season. That in itself is pretty unusual because sandalwood trees in the wild do not flower and fruit in September. They flower and fruit around November, December and they drop their ripened fruit around about January. We were even more stunned and amazed to see a few weeks ago that our sandalwoods were flowering yet again. So we have had two flowerings in one season.
You can pull up the sandalwood trees and get the root and extract the oil, and it's quite valuable. It is not the most valuable oil around, but fairly valuable. And you can sell the sandalwood itself overseas to India for funeral pyres, where it is a traditional method of disposing of deceased bodies.
However, we think that the future of sandalwood is in the sandalwood kernels. When you first try a sandalwood kernel, you will find that it is pretty bland, fairly chewy, and once you have got what little flavour there is out of it, you are left with a leftover chewy mass. If any of you are from the country and you have ever chewed wheat, you will know what I am talking about. However, sandalwood nuts are very nutritious. About two and a half years ago a young lady who was a surveyer's assistant was lost in the Pilbara. She was missing for 10 days. They had actually given up the search for her when she walked out of the bush hale and hearty. She had survived on sandalwood nuts all that time. She had plenty of water but no food other than sandalwood nuts. Nothing wrong with her. She went back to work that afternoon. That speaks volumes for the nutritional value of sandalwood nuts.
There has been quite a lot of early work done on the nutrition in them by Edith Cowan University, under Flanaghan and Barrett, and also by the Ma..? Research Centre at Curtin University. I have their report here. It was first published in July 1993. The people concerned were Flanaghan and Barrett, Department of Consumer Science. They did a lot of work in preparing sandalwood kernels for human consumption, and they did a lot of work testing with different groups of people. Their basic results were that for the most part sandalwood kernels are very bland and fairly chewy except in one circumstance: when you halve them and keep them in an oven for about 30 minutes at 120 degrees C. That seems to bring out the best flavour in them. I understand, too, that if you give them a light fry in macadamia nut oil and some cayenne pepper, they come across pretty well. The particular oil they did theirs in was copha, which is rather expensive, but I guess any coconut oil derivative would do the job.
If you have never tried to crack a sandalwood nut before, you are in for an interesting time. If you thought macadamia nuts were hard, wait until you try to crack a sandalwood nut. Actually, macadamia nuts are harder in terms of trying to penetrate them, but sandalwood nuts have this wonderful ability to bounce back at you. So you hit them with a hammer and they hit you back, or try to. You need a special nutcracker to crack sandalwood nuts. What we do is hold them in a pair of slip-jaw pliers and whack them with a hammer. Occasionally you lose, but mostly you win. The proper way to do it: there is actually a very fine line which is very difficult to discern, which is the natural cleavage plane of the nut. If you hit it on that with a hammer, it will break. If you hit it anywhere else, it will shoot in unexpected directions.
However, they can be cracked. Whether it is worth the effort or not I am not sure at this stage. I think probably that sandalwood nuts will come to the forefront as a snack food when somebody finds a way to give them a particular flavour. There are a number of Australian bush food flavours which would go well with sandalwood nuts. I can think of a couple straight off. If you want to know more about Australia bush foods, there is a very good book called Wild Lime that has a lot of bush food recipes. It will also give you a lot of insight into what bush food flavours go with what. There is actually food all over the place out there that most of the white community have no idea about. Some of the nice pretty little garden plants are also edible. One that my wife will never forgive me for bringing home was one called New Zealand spinach, or Warrigal greens. You plant it, and think, what a wonderful, rich looking plant. Three months later, it is climbing over the roof of your house. It is a terribly invasive weed. If you water it well, it will keep on spreading. It will choke your average billy goat. It grows like a bush fire. You can just about see it growing. I have measured it growing 14 mm in a twelve-hour day. Not bad though, as a substitute for spinach.
Getting back to sandalwood nuts. There needs to be a bit of work done. One of the suggestions was that they be incorporated into muesli bars. Sandalwood nuts have a very high protein level, about 18%, but they have an extremely high fat content, about 60%. So, you have to watch the waistline.
As for propagating sandalwoods, there are a few tricks to know about them. As a small boy I can remember asking my grandfather why he had a patch of casuarina fenced off in the paddock. He said, "I have to keep the rabbits and kangaroos out of there because those trees tell me what the weather is going to be like, for when I want to plant my crops." I didn't really understand at the time. I thought he was talking about the casuarinas. I now know he was talking about the sandalwood trees that were growing under the casuarinas. Even now there are people out in the wheat belt that will tell you that they can recognise when a drought is coming by watching what the sandalwood trees are doing in terms of germinating their seed. It appears that sandalwood trees will not germinate their seed if there is a drought period coming up. In WA and the wheat belt, as some of you are aware, the drought and the good years seem to follow an eleven year cycle, or thereabouts, with the sun spot cycle. So, somehow or other, sandalwood nuts appear to sense that sun spot cycle and they react accordingly. I have heard from people that in some years you cannot strike a sandalwood seed: it will not grow. Other years, you can barely contain the things. They keep popping out of the bag and sticking their little radicles out all over the place. That particular piece of information hasn't been tested rigourously by science. This is just hearsay that I have gathered over the years from people that I know.
You may hear information that tells you that sandalwoods grow very, very slowly and mature very slowly. That is true for areas where they are currently fairly prolific, like out in the Goldfields. Out there, sandalwoods do take 15 to 18 years to mature, and live quite a lot longer and they are much more stunted in their growth. Around Perth, in the hills just east of Perth, we have typically got sandalwoods that mature in three to four seasons and are anything from 2 to 4 metres high. The biggest one I have seen was 6 m high, three years old. I must admit that was under perfect conditions.
Perfect conditions for sandalwood basically means being in a forested environment. They are an understory tree. They will not survive out in an open paddock on their own. They are killed by drying winds, particularly easterly winds. If you have a sandalwood out in the open hit by an easterly wind, it is dead within two hours. You need to protect sandalwood seedlings from any kind of wind at all. That means that in their early stages you put a grow-bag or shelter around them. As long as you give them a bit of water, they are happy and keep on going. But, blow on them in passing and they will keel over. They just will not tolerate any kind of drying wind.
The other problem with sandalwood seedlings it that they are utterly and totally and completely beloved of kangaroos. Kangaroos will go miles to get a sandalwood seedling. Kangaroos also eat the sandalwood seeds themselves. They digest the rind off the outside but pass the seed through their gut. The sandalwood is quite happy to go along with this because it gets deposited in a nice little pile of appropriately organised manure, and away it goes, hopefully.
Sandalwood trees are totally parasitic. They cannot survive without their host tree, or their host plant, whatever it might be. While they will happily parasitise grass, and thrive while the grass thrives, of course, when the grass dies, you have a few weeks and then the sandalwood is dead. So, it is best that sandalwood be hosted with a local species. For the wheat belt, the one that seems to do the best is Acacia acuminata,< /i> particularly the fine-leafed one. Just why that is I will tell you in a moment. Also Casuarina species, particularly fraseriana, which is the common wheat belt she oak.
The reason you want the fine-leafed acuminata, which, incidentally, out in the wheat belt is known as a 'Wadjal,' is that sandalwoods, being a growing tree, need their light. While you can give them lots of nice protection by growing them with a big, leafy tree, that blocks out the sunlight. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. You have to decide how you want to go about it. We found that the best compromise is the fine-leafed Acacia acuminata. The Acacia aneura is pretty good, too, I think. The ones we have planted with Acacia aneura have tended to grow up through the Acacia aneura, and it is hard to tell where the acacia stops and the sandalwood starts. Another one that was particularly successful was the WA spinebush. I don't know the name of this: it is not Prickly Moses. It has little spines, 2 to 3 cm long that radiate all around stems and twigs. Horrible things. It is something the blue wrens love to nest in out in the wheat belt. Sandalwoods like them too, for some reason. We have little spinebushes with big sandalwoods growing over the tops of them. Fortunately that one was in a location that was well-protected from the easterly winds, and as a consequence, it did quite nicely.
Sandalwoods don't seem to mind Acacia saligna, which is a broad-leafed tree. But, at our place there are only a few sandalwoods left growing with Acacia saligna because they put out so much shade they smother the sandalwood underneath it. So, Acacia saligna is not a good bet at all.
Some people are opting for Acacia aneura because, while it is not the best choice, it does have the added advantage that you can harvest and market the seed. Not many people are aware, but the original recipe for Anzac biscuits didn't have flour: it had ground-up wattle seed, which was Acacia aneura. The last time I checked, Acacia aneura seed in New York was selling for $80 per kilo. I can tell you it is a bugger to harvest. What you have to do to harvest it is put a circular net under the tree and give it a shake every now and again, and collect off the net. Make your net out of shade cloth or similar, with a wire frame that you can fold around the tree and hook up with a couple of pegs so all the seed can roll into a container. It is a lot of mucking around, but once you have it set up, it is not too much work to do it. And there is a good market for the seed.
The two allocasuarinas that have been used are Allocasuarina acutivalis and Allocasuarina fraseriana. Allocasuarina fraseriana is known as the common she oak that you see dotted all over the light country up in the wheat belt. Acacia cyclops is another one, known as the red-eye wattle. That is a coastal wattle. You would probably want to have it on pretty light country, sandy country. I don't know how it would go in the gravelly loam in the hills. Out in the wheat belt, you find that the sandalwoods are all on the light, sandy country, which are usually sand ridges populated with allocasuarina species. Sandalwoods are the understory for the allocasuarinas. Down on the slopes where the sand gives way to the heavier soil is where you will find quandongs.
Quandongs, like their first cousins the sandalwoods, are parasitic, but they are only classed as semi-parasitic. You can grow a quandong, I believe, on its own, and it will grow. Not particularly well, but it will grow. It will never fruit very well. To fruit successfully, a quandong needs a host. Quandongs have been a particular delight of wheat belt kids for years. I can remember collecting them as a little boy to use in a Chinese chequers game. You would have to sort them to get all the right size and paint them different colours, which was a lot of fun. You can also eat the kernels of quandongs. The local Aboriginals tell me that it was used as a bush tucker food and also as a bush medicine for arthritis. I don't know how accurate that information is, it is just what I have been told. However, it is probably worth investigating.
I haven't tried eating a quandong nut. Every time I hit a quandong nut, it disappears, usually at high velocity. Lyn's pretty good at cracking them, but I can't.
With the quandong fruit, all the quandongs in a particular area, and I suspect probably over a very wide area, they all ripen and drop within a day and a half. This means that you have to be well and truly on your toes, or have somebody in the area that is well and truly on their toes. If you want quandongs, you have got to be there on the day. While they will hang around and be green and red on the tree for a few weeks, sometimes, they seem to wait for God knows what signal, and suddenly they go completely red and they are all on the ground the following morning.
Quandongs are particularly prone to some form of fungal attack that looks very similar to Anthracnose in mangoes. It is a black spot that eats right into the flesh of the fruit. In order to get the flesh off a quandong nut, you have to get them off the tree the evening before the day they are going to fall. That is not easy to judge. At that stage, they have developed their full colour. For the perfect fruit, you need to take them off the tree, run a knife around the periphery of it and separate the flesh into two halves, and drop it straight into iced water. If you don't do that, it loses colour almost immediately, within a few minutes of cutting. But if you pop it straight into iced water it will keep its colour. But don't leave it in the water too long, because the water leaches the colour out as well. You get this lovely pink iced water and dull grey-brown bits of fruit floating around.
Quandong flesh to eat has a sort of a chewy bite to it which is unlike anything else you have ever tried. When you bite into a bit of quandong flesh, even though it is quite thin, 2 mm at most, you can feel this chewy, fibrous resistance, which is not unpleasant. It gives it body and texture. The best way I have found to consume quandongs is as quandong jam, and there is a recipe in Wild Lime. I experimented around and got some of the left-over jam syrup and some of the spare quandong flesh. I put three parts of jam syrup to one part of good brandy and let it steep for about three months before we couldn't stand it any longer. That is very, very nice indeed, with a bit of ice cream. People from overseas who have tried quandongs in that regard, say they have never tasted anything like it, because the flavour of quandong is quite unique. I must admit I have never tried stewing up sandalwood skin, yet. Sandalwood skins are shoe-leather brown, quite thin and very fibrous. Kangaroos love it, and there is some kind of beetle that loves it as well. If you leave the sandalwoods on the ground too long, the beetles will eat all the brown skin off. When the sandalwood seed hits the ground, the nut is usually rattling inside the semi-hard outer husk. It is the outer husk the beetles and kangaroos love. Oddly enough, the kangaroos will not go for quandongs: emus go for quandongs. They seem to have this division of labour worked out between them. So if you are growing both, you don't have to worry about the kangaroos, but you have to keep the emus away from the quandongs. Emus are not a big problem around the hills but kangaroos and wallabies are, of course.
So, if you go to plant a sandalwood plantation, you need to space them out around about 4 metres or more. Sandalwood trees aren't that big. There are 3 or 4 provenances of sandalwoods. They look quite unlike one another. There is one lot around Lancelin, another from the hills, another out at Beacon. They look as though they are related trees, but from completely different species. The hills sandalwood has quite a broad leaf which is almost teardrop shaped. The Lancelin ones have quite a long, thin leaf, lanceolate leaf, which is arranged in opposite pairs, very neat, looks like it had been constructed in a factory somewhere, and fairly widely spaced. The one from Beacon has leaves similar to the Lancelin variety, but they are closer together and a bit more random. There is another one I can't remember. Those are the three main ones.
It is not surprising that the hills sandalwood has a broader leaf. It has greater top cover with mostly Marri trees on the ridges, and Jarrah trees halfway down the slope. There is a fair bit of shade for them to cope with, so they need a broader leaf. And they don't have the problems with wind that sandalwoods up at Lancelin would have, exposed on sand dunes and the sea breeze, or the sea gale as is usually is. You can see why the variations come about. The ones further east have a smaller leaf because they need to keep their transpiration under control, particularly being on very well-drained soil.
That is the other thing you will need for sandalwoods: well-drained soil. They absolutely hate having their roots in water. You can kill a sandalwood very easily by over-watering it. That is why we kept ours down to about a litre of water per tree per day. In the second season, I cut the watering down from once a day to once every two days, but only in the height of the summer. In the third season, I gave them a litre per week per tree, just enough to keep them through the hot weather. We have a 35 inch rainfall, supposedly. Last year we had 1200 mm, the year before that we had 800 mm. Average it out and it is about 1000 mm.
You plant them when the rains come, say May, June. By the time summer arrives, they are up around 6 to 18 inches high, and they are still quite tender. They do need the extra water to keep them going during that first summer. The second summer, some are still a bit tender and you still need to make sure to keep them going with a little water. Watering in the third summer is just to be sure. That is the regime that has worked well for us. We don't plant seed directly: Lyn propagates the seeds. I'm not about to give away commercial secrets, but we get around 97% success rate with our seed propagation. If you buy a tree from us, you can be pretty sure it has been through at least three gradings: once as a seed, once as a young plant, and once as a growing plant. The failure rate with the ones that we sell would be very low. We have not had any complaints. We make sure that the trees are bonded with their hosts in the bag before they go out to the people who are going to plant them.
There is a specialised way of planting these trees that is explained in the literature that you get with it. It details how to go about planting them so that you don't break that fragile root bond that the young sandalwood has with its host.
You can fertilise them. I recommend one native tree tablet in the bottom of the hole, which is a low phosphorus native fertiliser. If you use one of those and cover it over with a bit of dirt and then plant your sandalwood on top of that, you will find that they will go well. Once the sandalwood is underway, it doesn't need the fertiliser at all. It gets what it needs from the host trees. If its particular host dies, the seeker root senses that long before it happens and goes out and finds another host. You will find that sandalwoods are happiest when they are in a crowd of other trees. They like being part of a crowd, an understory. That is where they thrive, because they are protected from the wind. If they are in a thicket they are protected from the kangaroos. Kangaroos, like us, tend to draw the line at forcing their way through spinebushes.
Sandalwoods prefer to get light, of course, but they seem to be OK with the midday sun overhead, more so than with the morning or afternoon sun. Afternoon sun, in particular, burns them off, we found. We have gone for planting our sandalwoods so that the sandalwood is on the south eastern corner of the host tree. It gets the morning sun, it get the midday sun through the foliage of the host tree, but is protected from the late afternoon sun.
We don't know a lot about nurturing quandongs. We have been concentrating our efforts on sandalwoods up to now. It is only this year that we have started to look at quandongs in any sort of quantity. I would imagine most of what I said about sandalwoods applies to quandongs, apart from being not so parasitic. I can tell you that quandongs will not fruit unless they have a good host tree.