New experiments unlocking sandalwood mysteries

Five hundred years ago, sandalwood trees grew wild and abundant in Timor-Leste’s forests, dropping their small seeds into the soil below to sprout new green seedlings. But after years of over-logging, illegal theft and exploitation the tree’s population now is nearly nothing. Previously, efforts by authorities to cultivate and farm new seedlings in nurseries had little success – seedlings shrivelled and died, seeds failed to germinate, and trees took decades to grow.

People were stumped. Why was this happening?

Now, research conducted by AI-Com, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and other development partners has uncovered some key insights about the sandalwood tree’s growth, which can be harnessed to effectively restore this valuable native tree.

Sandalwood needs hosts to thrive

Our supported researchers know that sandalwood is a hemi-parasitic tree which requires a host tree to grow well – while it’s native to Timor-Leste, it won’t grow well alone. Last year, we planted seedlings in on-farm experiments in Aidabaleten village in Bobonaro municipality, positing seedlings near forage tree legumes, like Leucaena, or ai-kafe, and Sesbania grandiflora, or ai-kala. These trees fix nitrogen, improve soil quality, and also feed cattle – and may help farming families effectively grow strong, valuable sandalwood trees.

We’ve also published a book with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries recommending sandalwood host species for Timor-Leste, Sandalwood Production and Hosts in Timor-Leste, providing guidelines and information for those seeking to plant sandalwood. In the book’s forward, former Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Estanislau Alexio da Silva, wrote that the information contained within the book can help rural development projects improve tree survival.

“Knowing that sandalwood is a parasitic tree allows us to better design ways to plant and re-establish groves of sandalwood throughout Timor,” he said. “The … book will act as a reference on what trees are suitable to be planted with sandalwood to ensure their healthy growth and subsequent survival.”

Sandalwood seeds germinate erratically

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and its partners are committed to restoring Timor-Leste’s sandalwood forests, but the sandalwood seed’s slow germination rate proves difficult for those trying to fill a nursery.

Sandalwood seeds are designed to germinate a few at a time, some after each time it rains. This is called seed dormancy – the seed sits in a state of dormancy before it is ready to germinate, to wake up and grow into a seedling. Our supported researchers, Ida Pereira and Luis Patriciano, last year conducted sandalwood seed germination experiments in Liquica and Manatuto municipalities, investigating different ways to wake up seeds, or to break the seed dormancy, using different applications of GA3 plant hormone and  local plant extracts.

Ida’s research has produced a nice crop of sandalwood seedlings that AI-Com researchers are this week planting in Ritabou village in Bobonaro municipality, continuing on-farm experiments for strong sandalwood host trees and planting.

Sandalwood is not a lost cause

The species of sandalwood that grows in Timor-Leste, Santalum album, is officially listed as a vulnerable species globally by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature – which considers a species threatened if its population is vulnerable to endangerment in the near future.

But our supported researchers have worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to conduct a forest inventory in the western part of Timor-Leste to document the extent of the tree’s population – and found that around two in every 1,000 trees are sandalwood. The resilience of this tree to continue to produce when overexploited for hundreds of years is remarkable.

Recent interest and investment in protecting sandalwood and restoring wild forest populations will only help the resilient tree’s survival. In AI-Com’s baseline survey, up to 96 per cent of farming families in areas of Maliana indicated interest in growing sandalwood.

“It has a nice smell and it’s a good source of income,” one farmer told AI-Com researchers in Ritabou village. Others state that the tree represents the “riches of Timor”, and that growing seedlings would benefit their grandchildren – challenging the assumption that the years taken by sandalwood to reach maturity and produce valuable oil would dissuade farming families from planting seedlings.

In 2019, AI-Com-supported researchers and partners will plant hundreds of trees with farmers to investigate the best ways to establish promote early growth of this important tree, ensuring its continued survival and flourishing.

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