Why the Saptaparni is called the devil’s tree

Saptaparni is known by many names, and is the tree from which our blackboards are pigmented

October 22, 2019 02:28 pm | Updated 02:28 pm IST



October brings with it the onset of Delhi’s winter and the festive season. There’s a change in the air accompanied by a distinct strong smell, which for some of us, is synonymous with this season. It’s from the flowers of the Saptaparni ( Alstonia scholaris ) tree that are small greenish-white, growing in tight clusters that stay until December.

Saptaparni is a medium-sized evergreen tree from the very moist forests of the Himalayas. According to references, the tree was first planted in Delhi in the late 1940s when Golf Links colony was coming up (it’s still a good place to find the tree, along with Lodhi Gardens). It has slowly evolved as a prominent avenue tree, due to its hardy nature, high tolerance against pollution, and adaptability.

The name comes from two Sanskrit words, Sapta meaning seven, and parni meaning leaves. As the name suggests, the leaves, most often, are found in bunches of seven around the stem. They are blunt, glossy, and create starry symmetries. The leaves remain throughout the year with new flushes standing out against older leaves in March and April and again during the rainy season. The tree’s fruit is bean-like and appears in pairs.

The tree’s natural range shows a broad belt in the sub-Himalayan tract east of the Yamuna and is also found in the moist forests of the Western and Eastern Ghats in peninsular India. In addition to this it also grows naturally from Sri Lanka to Myanmar and South China, and from Malay Peninsula to Australia. “In its natural habitat, it is best suited to deep, moist soil and its tolerance to drier conditions makes it very favourable for Delhi but the growth is often stunted,” says Vijay Dhasmana, a curator of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram.

The bark is known as ditabark, used by Indians as traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, asthma, and a few types of fevers. It has also been used as an aphrodisiac. When damaged, the bark lets out a sticky milky latex, which is also valued for its medicinal properties. This is used by vaids in formulations, and not to be consumed as is.

Known by many names like Shaitan ka Jhad or the Devil’s Tree, tribals are often reluctant to sit under this tree or even pass under it for the fear of the devil. However, its most important significance comes from its scientific name, Alstonia scholaris. The genus is named after professor C. Alston, a famous botanist of Edinburgh. Students’ blackboards, writing tables and slates are made from the bark of the tree. Hence, the other name for the tree is the Blackboard Tree and also includes the word scholaris in its scientific name.

The Saptaparni is of great cultural significance in the intellectual circle, as traditionally its leaves were awarded to scholars and teachers during convocation ceremonies by the Visva Bharati University. This tradition was started by Rabindranath Tagore in Gurudeb University. Due to environmental degradation, the practice has been reduced to handing over a single leaf to the Vice Chancellor of the University.

The large branches provide favourable breeding sites for wild bees to make their hives and the pollination of the tree is carried out by insects. When the tree flowers, a plethora of insects like butterflies, bees and beetles are seen all over it. The seeds of the tree have a tuft of silky hairs at each end, and are dispersed by the wind.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme at WWF India.

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