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Wood As Food

September 20, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

Sandalwood is familiar to us from incense sticks and perfumes (far more perfumes than most people suspect). It has nothing to do with sandals, by the way. The name comes, by a long and complicated route, from a Sanskrit word meaning "bright," perhaps referring to the light color of the wood, perhaps, in a metaphorical way, to its distinctive aroma.

It's a large tree and an unusual one; it's what botanists call a hemiparasite. In one of those ruthless expedients that tropical creatures are driven to adopt, the sandalwood tree can produce its own food by photosynthesis, as other green plants do, and it can parasitize nutrients from other plants by means of sucker roots, like a fungus.

In fact, the sandalwood tree couldn't survive on photosynthesis alone if it wanted to. If you want to raise sandalwood, you have to plant each tree next to a host tree. When the sandalwood tree is 50 years old, you can cut it down for the fragrant heartwood and roots.

Besides showing up in incense and perfume, sandalwood has occasionally been used as a flavoring. Even today, it scents the non-frozen Indian "ice cream" barfi, and in medieval Europe it was used as a food flavoring--and even a reddish-brown food coloring--under the name "sanders," which sounds like the name of a 50-year-old butler.

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