It has happened with me. Every October, generally in the evenings, walking under these trees I’ve taken chest full (puraka) of the amazing fragrance and enjoyed the bliss while sadly being ignorant about the tree’s name?
During my recent trip to Varanasi, my friend JNS, a vaidya introduced me to saptaparani–a favourite avenue tree among city horticulturists. You may too have been greeted by its heady fragrance but been totally oblivious about its identity.
“Once a decoction of the bark was used to treat diarrhoea and malaria, Also a decoction of the leaves were used for beriberi. Ayurveda recommends Saptaparni for bowel complaints,” said JNS.
Sanskrit has around 25 names for it. Its scientific name is Alstonia scholaris. The generic name ‘Alstonia’ is attributed to the distinguished botanist Prof. C. Alston of Edinburgh and species name ‘scholaris’ is derived from fact that its wood was used for making wooden slates for school children. It’s also known locally by names like Indian Devil tree, Pala tree, Milky pine and Blackboard tree. Interestingly, it’s designated as state tree of West Bengal. Like Jarul of Maharasthra. Both have one thing in common: they flower twice a year.
Growing to an average height of 20mts., its branches tend to spread out like an umbrella. The leaves come out in whorls of seven, hence the name Ezhilam pala in Malayalam and ‘Saptaparni’ in Sanskrit and Bangla. The scented small tubular sessile greenish white flowers bloom in dense terminal clusters.
Come dusk, the lime like heady scent fills the air as the flowers bloom. One can see carpets of flowers on roadsides or parks, wherever the tree flowers. The flowering of the saptaparni also heralds the arrival of the winter. It heralds the arrival of Goddess along with her kids to her parent’s home.
During summer as the tree bears fruit, the tree resembles a woman with her tress hanging loose. Saptaparni got its bad name (Devil’s Tree) because what it does. That’s flowering at dusk. A trait it shares with Plumeria(Frangipani). However, the scent is to attract night pollinators and has nothing to do with guarding evil spirits, as adivasis believed.
Check out the saptaparni trees in your neighbourhood. If you want to really check whether it spreads its scent in the evening do bring a bunch of the saptaparani flowers and leave it a vase filled with water. As dusk settles your room will be engulfed with its heady scent.