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Tree of Heaven – Hawaiian Sandalwood

Tree of Heaven – Hawaiian Sandalwood


by Shannon Wianecki (originally published in Hana Hou! The Hawaiian Airlines Magazine)

The scent hit me the minute I stepped out of my car. Beneath the hot sugar of malassadas frying inside the Punalu‘u Bake Shop, I caught a more sultry fragrance…woodsy, hypnotic and unmistakable.

Following my nose to the Na‘alehu farmer’s market, I found the source. Between booths laden with vegetables and homemade jams sat a man selling beautifully carved wooden letter openers, hair picks and bags of incense. Aromatic smoke curled from a pile of sawdust smoldering in a pot. The man’s sign read: “Hawaiian Sandalwood. Sustainable Harvest.”

He didn’t have business cards and wouldn’t share his phone number. When I asked where the sandalwood came from, he told me he’d felled it on his own ten acres in nearby Miloli‘i, bucked it with a chainsaw and hauled it out piece by piece. He was friendly and full of facts about this rare Hawaiian hardwood. What he was doing was perfectly legal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d stumbled across something illicit, like rhinoceros horn or turtle meat. “Sandalwood” and “sustainable” are words not often paired.



For thousands of years, spiritual aspirants in the Far East have used sandalwood as a bridge to the divine. To this day, Hindus smear fragrant sandalwood paste onto their foreheads before meditating. Buddhists count prayers on sandalwood beads. Carvers turn the soft, sweet-smelling wood into cabinets, toys and sacred statues. Ayurvedic doctors prescribe sandalwood oil to cure skin conditions, while the Kama Sutra praises its aphrodisiac powers. Sandalwood is reputed for both calming passions and stirring them. In Hawai‘i, it has mostly done the latter.

The world’s most coveted sandalwood species, Santalum album, comes from India, but there are other sandalwood species, native to Australia, Fiji, Indonesia and Hawai‘i. In fact, the Hawaiian archipelago is home to six sandalwood species—all of which occur nowhere else on earth—representing a third of the genus’ diversity. Santalum trees produce santalols, powerful compounds responsible for the wood’s potent aroma and medicinal properties. But santalols are only present in the heartwood—not the bark or leaves. To get a whiff, you must sacrifice the tree.

Therein lies the trouble. Throughout the tropics, the sandalwood industry has been marked by greedy overconsumption and outright theft. To satisfy insatiable international demand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka wiped out their native sandalwood forests. The world’s biggest suppliers, India and Australia, battle poachers; thieves pinched as much as 90 percent of India’s harvest in 2012. But nowhere has the sandalwood trade so deeply affected the community as in Hawai‘i.

When Captain James Kendrick anchored the Lady Washington off of Kaua‘i in 1791, he found Hawaiians perfuming kapa (barkcloth) with shavings from the ‘iliahi tree. The American privateer immediately recognized ‘iliahi as sandalwood—a hot commodity in China. Kendrick set three sailors ashore to collect as much wood as they could find. At first, Chinese merchants rejected Hawaiian sandalwood as inferior. But by 1805, shipments of ‘iliahi were turning significant profits in Canton.

Sandalwood became the Islands’ first major export. The trade—which lasted just thirty years—was swift and devastating for the forest and people of Hawai‘i. At the time of Western contact, the Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs) were at war. Kamehameha I, who was then rising in power, established a monopoly on sandalwood. The abundant natural resource gave him the means to purchase ships, cannons and guns.

This new currency ushered in an era of commerce that unraveled the Hawaiians’ centuries-old subsistence lifestyle. Traders measured sandalwood in piculs, equal to 133.3 pounds—the weight a man could carry. A picul of sandalwood fetched an average of $10 in China, in an era when a dollar bought fifty pounds of beef or four hundred pounds of sweet potatoes. During the height of the sandalwood trade, historians estimate that Hawaiian men hefted at least one hundred thousand piculs of lumber out of the mountains.

Sandalwood harvesters were nicknamed kua leho (callous back) after the callouses they developed from hauling logs down from the mountain. They dug pits in the forest the size of ship’s hulls to measure what they needed to harvest. A few of these lua moku ‘iliahi (sandalwood pits) remain as testament to bygone forests, one in Kamiloloa on Moloka‘i and another on the Kapalama Nu‘uanu ridge on O‘ahu.

By 1810, Kamehameha had successfully vanquished his foes and united the Islands under single rule. According to Native Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau, when the king saw that his people were suffering from famine, he ordered the sandalwood harvesters to return to their farms and fishponds. He placed a kapu (restriction) on young sandalwoods to allow the forest to regenerate.

After King Kamehameha died in 1819, his son and successor, Liholiho, was ill prepared for his new role as monarch. The boy had led a sheltered life of luxury, gaining a reputation as a gambler and drinker. He cancelled the kapu on sandalwood and allowed other ali‘i to trade, which proved disastrous. Hawaiian royals bought frame houses, silks, liquors and other extravagances using credit, an utterly foreign concept. Receipts show $800 promised for a mirror and $10,000 for a brass cannon.

By 1826, the monarchy’s debts surpassed $200,000. Two American warships visited the Islands to investigate the situation. This prompted the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to enact its first written law. The Sandalwood Tax required every Hawaiian man to provide a half picul of sandalwood or pay four Spanish dollars. (He was allowed to keep a half picul for himself.) Women were obligated to deliver twelve-foot lengths of kapa. The debts weren’t settled until 1843.

Several foreigners in Hawai‘i during this era commented on the spectacle of thousands of Hawaiians leaving the forest at night by torchlight, bearing wood on their backs. In April 1830, Mr. Gulick wrote from Kaua‘i: “Felt distressed and grieved for the people who collect sandalwood. They are often driven by hunger to eat wild and bitter herbs, moss, etc. And though the weather is so cold on the hills that my winter clothes will scarcely keep me comfortable, I frequently see men with no clothing except the maro [malo, or loincloth]. Were they not remarkably hardy, many of them would certainly perish.”

Many did perish, but not due solely to the sandalwood trade. During the decades following Western contact, hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians died from introduced diseases. As the villages emptied, so did the forests. By 1840, the sandalwood supply was exhausted. Meanwhile, the rapacious sea captains found a new target: whales.

Hawaiian sandalwood faded from the collective consciousness over the ensuing years. The once-prized trees grew so rare that many Islanders came to believe they were extinct. They are not. Though the world has forgotten them, the majestic trees still exist, and on one Hawaiian hillside they exist in great number. But these grey-barked sentries are dying, struck by fire, drought, sheep, rats—and, once again, humans intent on harvesting them. If the elder trees go, will another generation of ‘iliahi take root in the Islands?



If you know what to look for, you’ll find sandalwoods scattered throughout Hawai‘i. The trees have bluish, almost jadeite green leaves and clusters of miniscule, star-shaped flowers. Each of the main Hawaiian Islands has its own species. Kaua‘i, the oldest island, has two: the red-flowered Santalum pyrularium and S. involutum. On O‘ahu, the windswept ridges of Wai‘anae are home to a few old S. freycinetianum trees, while the rare and stately S. Haleakalae populates small pockets of forest on Maui, Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i. Coastal sandalwood, or ‘iliahi alo‘e (S. ellipticum), is a smaller, shrubbier species found at low elevation on all of the main islands. But the archipelago’s largest and most abundant sandalwoods inhabit its youngest volcano: Hawai‘i.

High above the glittering waters of South Kona, reaching up the slope of Mauna Loa, is a wide swath of land marked on a 1905 territorial map as Sandalwood Forest. It’s the home of S. paniculatum, the fragrant, green-flowered species endemic to the Big Island. Kamehameha Schools, the largest private landowner in Hawai‘i, owns 120,000 mauka (mountainside) acres from Kealakekua north to Pohakuloa; this includes the bulk of the historic sandalwood forest.

When I ask to visit, Kamehameha Schools sends along its entire natural resource management team: five people, including two managers from O‘ahu. I expect suits; instead I am met with young, fresh faces. Ecologist Nāmaka Whitehead gives me the lay of the land as we rumble up the mountain. Tropical foliage gives way to the distinctive shape of the Hawaiian dry forest: spindly, thick-barked trees that have evolved to maximize moisture. Plants in this parched terrain rely on lilinoe, fine mist, rather than rain—though at near 6,000 feet in elevation, snow flurries aren’t unheard of. Today it’s sunny and clear, the summits of Hualālai and Mauna Kea visible in the distance. Before long we’re standing in the world’s largest, most intact ‘iliahi forest.

Towering koa trees cast lacy shadows on the hard lava plain. Yellow-blossomed māmane dangle twisted pods bursting with neon orange seeds. Growing amidst this bounty are more sandalwoods than I can count. I press my nose up to their flowers. A flirtatious elepaio chatters from the canopy of the tallest ‘iliahi I’ve ever seen. While Santalum species typically top out at thirty feet in height, the S. paniculatum here approach sixty-five.

We sit down for a picnic in this idyll. Whitehead explains that the seeming paradise is fraught with problems. “The last few years, the droughts have been longer and more severe. The plants up here are adapted to dry conditions but not this dry.” Climate change is further weakening an already embattled ecosystem.

For over a century this mountainside has been grazed to a nub by cattle, sheep, and pigs—the bane of native Hawaiian forests. Even as we sit talking, a caramel tide of feral sheep disappears around the bend, their bellies likely full of tender plant shoots. Kamehameha Schools hasn’t always been the best steward of the land. The new guard seeks to change that. They’re partnering with the Three Mountain Alliance and Silversword Foundation to fence ten thousand acres and remove the animals. So far they’ve fenced a six thousand-acre parcel called Lupea.

“We recognize that healthy functioning ecosystems are a vital component of the Hawaiian lifestyle and wellbeing. Without them, we lose our identity,” says Whitehead. “I Hawai‘i no na Hawai‘i i ka ‘äina: We are who we are because of the land.” The 34-year-old grew up in South Kona. Her parents taught her the many uses of native plants as a child—including how to roast and eat sandalwood nuts. “They taste like a cross between a macadamia nut and a coconut,” she says.

The Kamehameha Schools team believes that the preservation of rare forest species can’t be a hobby or an academic pursuit—it has to be integral to people’s survival. To that end, the team employs not just an ecologist but also a forester, Kama Dancil. They’re looking for a model that blends restoration with commercial opportunities.

“When people start talking about making a profit, does that make it bad?” asks Dancil. He says that Kamehameha Schools, as powerful as it is, doesn’t have the resources necessary to tackle reforestation on its vast acreage. Just fencing the six-thousand-acre Lupea section was a multi-million dollar endeavor. “So what do we do? Abort our other priorities? Let them go, or start looking outside of the box?”

“The forest is in big trouble,” adds Whitehead. “If we wait another generation, it will really be challenging. Right now there isn’t a way to reproduce ‘iliahi on a large scale… What if this works?”


Wade and Jeff Lee are Kamehameha Schools’ neighbors; they purchased 2,800 acres of forest adjacent to Lupea in 2010. As soon as the ink on the deed was dry, the brothers began felling sandalwoods and selling the timber to China, Dubai and Sri Lanka. It’s likely the largest scale sandalwood harvest Hawai‘i has seen in two centuries. Over the last four years, the Lees’ company, Haloa ‘Aina, has shipped out a thousand metric tons of sandalwood. Wade Lee estimates that there’s another 3,579 tons of living and dead wood on the property.

On a tour of the site, I can smell the production shed before we reach it: the air is perfumed with a haunting blend of sweet wood and diesel fuel. Shaved, pinkish logs are stacked outside the open-air shed. Inside, heaps of fragrant sawdust surround a giant distillation tank. The Lees use every bit of each sandalwood tree. The santalol-rich roots and heartwood are processed into essential oil: the highest value product. Haloa ‘Aina also sells hydrosol, carving logs, sapwood and powder. Even spent chips, wood that’s been processed for oil, is sold to soap and incense makers.

Heaps of sandalwood sawdust await shipment at Haloa 'Aina

Heaps of sandalwood sawdust await shipment at Haloa ‘Aina


The Four Seasons Resort Hualālai just a few miles down the coast uses Haloa ‘Aina’s powder in spa treatments. Floracopeia and DoTerra buy the oil. But Aura Cacia, the nation’s largest essential oil company, won’t do business with Haloa ‘Aina. Its parent company Frontier Co-op can’t yet determine whether the Lees’ harvesting practices will support the tree’s long-term survival. Frontier Co-op’s researcher, Tim Blakley, says basic questions about Hawaiian sandalwood’s history and life cycle haven’t been answered. First, what is its natural population density? How many trees currently exist? What level of harvest can a healthy ‘iliahi forest sustain? Without data-backed answers to those questions, Blakley says, the fledgling industry is operating in the dark.

The question marks haven’t deterred Kamehameha Schools, though. It recently partnered with the Lees to conduct small-scale harvest trials on two hundred acres.

The Lees maintain that the goal of Haloa ‘Aina isn’t logging, but reforestation. They claim to harvest only dead and dying sandalwoods, of which there are many. Wild ungulates have decimated the forest understory here too, and the trees are stressed by drought: In the 1960s, this area received almost fifty inches of rain per year; now it ekes by with just twenty-four. Fire is a constant threat. A weeks-long wildfire scorched this mountainside in 2010. The scent of burning sandalwood was intoxicating—and excruciating to those recognized it. Wade Lee’s first priority as landowner was to install fire extinguishers on every half-acre.

The brothers haven’t finished fencing the property, but they have made a dent in the population of grazing animals. Once the acreage is fully fenced and ungulate-free, koa and māmane will regenerate, but the sandalwoods won’t. Their fleshy, purple fruits are candy to rats, which devour the seeds before they can hit the ground and germinate.

Haloa ‘Aina compensates for the rats by out-planting sandalwoods and other native seedlings grown in their nursery. But their reforestation plan relies primarily on coppicing—reproduction through root shoots. When sandalwoods are harvested, the entire tree is yanked out, including its root ball. Root fragments remaining in the soil send up shoots and become new trees. Everywhere I looked at Haloa ‘Aina, blue plastic tubes poked out of the earth at odd angles, giving the reclaimed pasture the appearance of an acupuncture patient. Designed to boost water capture, fend off sheep and diffuse UV light, these Blue-X sheaths swaddle young sandalwoods. At $3 apiece, they’re a hefty investment.

Haloa ‘Aina’s underlying goal, says Wade, is to demonstrate that sustainable forestry can, in part, replace the cattle ranching that now dominates the Big Island’s landscape. “By offering a lucrative alternative,” he says, “we can grow our native forest back.” But the hitch with sandalwood’s sustainability is its slow growth. The oldest trees have the sweetest heartwood. Indian and Australian sandalwoods are harvested at around twenty years of age; older is preferable. Those planting sandalwood today won’t reap the rewards of their work; they’re planting for future generations.

Under current law, Hawaiian sandalwood—the equivalent of gold on the arboreal world market—is no different from any other tree. You may knock it down to build your house (as many Big Island residents unknowingly do), you can carve it into letter openers to sell at farmers’ markets, or you can ship containers of it to Dubai.

Blakley thinks the native tree should be managed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—a possibility the Lees strenuously object to, as it would dramatically restrict their enterprise. Without the cash flow that sandalwood sales provide, Wade Lee argues that Haloa ‘Aina couldn’t afford its restoration efforts.

For that reason, the Lees also object to local legislation in the works. Leigh-Wai Doo, a former Honolulu city councilman, has been working hard to pass a bill that would monitor and restrict the harvest of ‘iliahi. The current version would create a task force to study Hawaiian sandalwood and make recommendations for its statewide management.

Woo has allies, including Susan Leopold of United Plant Savers, a Vermont-based non-profit that advocates for rare North American medicinal plants. Leopold thinks it’s insane that ‘iliahi isn’t better monitored. “With six unique species, Hawai‘i is the Mecca of sandalwood,” she says. “And it’s the only place in the world without any legislation to regulate it.”


Mark Hanson, a.k.a. "Sandalwood Man," collects native Hawaiian sandalwood seeds

Mark Hanson, a.k.a. “Sandalwood Man,” collects native Hawaiian sandalwood seeds.

Mark Hanson isn’t waiting for commercial forestry to save the ‘iliahi. He’s got plans of his own. The amiable, grey-bearded fifty-four-year-old is the Johnny Appleseed of Hawaiian sandalwoods. He sells plants from his home nursery, but much of the work he does to perpetuate the native forest is unpaid. He lives on partial disability from a back injury he sustained in the military. He’s a self-taught arborist; he doesn’t have the letters after his name to prove that he knows what he’s doing, but that doesn’t stop him. “They call me Sandalwood Man,” he laughs. “The guerilla forester.”

Hanson first learned about ‘iliahi after moving to Maui from Milwaukie in 1979. The 20-year-old went on a Sierra Club hike in Haleakalä National Park, where he heard about sandalwood’s sad history. An inner voice whispered that he would one day replant the pillaged forests. In the meantime, he worked as George Harrison’s gardener in Nahiku, got married and did a stint in the military. But that intuitive voice returned, along with a few opportunities.

In 1995, Hanson started the non-profit Hawaiian Reforestation Program. State forester Bob Hobdy gave him permission to collect S. Haleakalae seeds from trees at Polipoli State Forest on Maui. Rene Sylva—a beloved Hawaiian botanist and another self-taught maverick—showed Hanson how to propagate the finicky plant.

Sandalwoods are tricky to grow. They can take anywhere from three months to three years to sprout. They need hosts; they’re semi-parasitic and fasten their roots onto those of neighboring plants to draw nutrients. Hanson, who now lives in Volcano, is one of few growers to have real luck with ‘iliahi. He’s been successfully germinating seedlings as long or longer than anybody else. His nursery is a tidy green factory flush with native saplings, sprouted from seeds he collected in the wild. He grows sandalwoods by the thousands, but feels frustrated when he finds no safe place to plant them. “I’m the father of a homeless forest,” he says.

Sandalwood saplings crowd Mark Hanson's nursery; he's one of the few growers to successfully germinate the native Hawaiian tree from seed

Sandalwood saplings crowd Mark Hanson’s nursery; he’s one of the few growers to successfully germinate the native Hawaiian tree from seed.

I meet Hanson at Mauna Kea State Park on lonely Saddle Road. At one time, this near desert was mixed dry forest, populated by naio, māmane and ‘iliahi trees. Sheep and goats changed that. Bitten hard by ensuing drought, the park’s sole vegetation now consists of a few bent and gnarled naio trees. Their blackened leaves are wasted by thrips, a new invasive pest.

I follow Hanson to a fenced area behind the campground. Since 2007, he and some Eagle Scouts have nurtured a 33,000-square-foot patch of native forest. It’s thriving thanks to the fence and a little extra water. Inside, Hanson points out a rare fern, Asplenium fragile, growing amidst the aweoweo shrubs and blooming māmane. He hands me a leafy sandalwood sapling with instructions to plant it beside a māmane, which will serve as its host. I tamp down the soil around my sapling and douse it with water.

Next we hop over a locked gate to visit some sandalwoods in a gulch on state land. Hanson’s non-profit spent $7,000 to erect small cages around 80 trees. He did it without permission. He shrugs. “I haven’t been arrested yet.”

The state has done a horrific job of safeguarding sandalwood trees—not that anybody in particular is to blame. The landscape is immense, funding shrinks year after year, and public objection to killing sheep is strident. As Susan Leopold says, if you’re hoping to protect a rare Hawaiian plant, get in line. Dozens of species desperately need management.

In 2012, the University of Hawai‘i hired Hanson to survey public land on Mauna Kea for sandalwood. He found only two hundred trees on Department of Land and Natural Resources acreage, and another eighty-seven on property belonging to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. He’s now working with both Departments to encircle the mountain with sandalwood seedlings. He also has an agreement with Kuka‘iau Ranch in Hāmākua to plant ‘iliahi on 4,500 acres, helping fulfill the ranch’s conservation easement requirements. Hanson may not have land of his own, but he’s getting sandalwoods in the ground.

Hanson was among the presenters at the recent International Sandalwood Symposium held on O‘ahu in 2012. He was there to pitch his grand idea: sandalwood nuts. The Australians are already marketing the tasty fruit of their Santalum tree. Hanson claims that this renewable resource will yield far more income than the tree’s wood.

“People can’t see the forest for the wood,” he tells me, as we peer down at the tiny tree I’ve just planted. “The only way I know to keep people from cutting down all the trees I grow is to create a market for the nuts.” He gives me a roasted ‘iliahi nut to sample. It’s tiny. And in a hopeful sign for the future, it’s delicious.


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