I’d never heard of this tree and its amazing fragrance until a stray encounter on the web the other day. It blossoms in the autumn and is powerfully evocative to people all over India. Here’s a blogger from New Delhi, describing Alstonia scholaris,
the tree that sends out spoils of memory, all beginning October end. Its overwhelming hold on all things childhood, love, adolescence, longing, hide and seek, Diwali before it’s lit, endless drives and old monk, as well as full-sleeve shirts, the ‘winter smell’ needed me find it a name, this ball of small white flowers which crumbled in my hand when I plucked it off a tree in Lutyen’s because I’d tugged at it too hard, in excitement.Here’s blogger Thangjam, who apparently lives near Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi:
I've grown up married and settled down with a loving son. Few days back I was walking down the lanes inside the JNU campus. We're in the final stage of autumn and to me the stinging fragrance of the flowers of Alstonia scholaris (commonly known as Indian Devil tree or Pala tree or Milky pine) reminded me that winter is not far away. Humid days shall be over and colourful Christmas shall embrace us soon. Thick mysterious fog will envelope as if challenging us mortals to unravel the secret of life and how warm relationships can thaw away the cold of the winter. These thoughts and the fragrance of Alstonia scholaris took me back to my childhood days. How we used to smell the inaphis and grandma’s connection of a particular smell to Christmas. The smell lingers just as we fondly remember the odors of our loved ones.Here’s biologist Parag Rangnekar writing from Goa:
Travelling back home after work these days has become much more pleasant. The lime like heady scent of the Saton (Alstonia scholaris) fills the air at dusk. The flowers bloom at dusk in bunches and one can see carpets of flowers on beaten tracks and tar roads wherever the tree flowers. Flowering in sync almost throughout the state, one can virtually count the number of trees from the fragrance that fills the air, if one is on a long distance drive. The flowering of the tree also heralds the arrival of the winter. It flowers twice during this time.As WTNK readers are aware, not everyone pays attention to smell, or is curious about what they smell. New Delhi blogger Krishna Pokharel sketches a couple of such characters in “Wake Up and Smell the Saptaparni.”
C.S. Anitha provides some useful background about this tree:
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.
The tree grows to an average height of 20 metres and the branches tend to spread out like an umbrella. The leaves come out in whorls of seven, hence the name ezhilam pala in Malayalam and ‘Sapthaparni’ in Sanskrit. The scented small tubular sessile greenish white flowers bloom in dense terminal clusters.
The fruit of the tree reminds one of a drumstick. Long and narrow, it hangs down in pairs.
During summer as the tree bears fruit, the tree resembles a woman with her tress hanging loose. According to folklore, the tree is believed to be an abode for evil spirits due to its scented night blooms. However, the scent is to attract night pollinators and has nothing to do with guarding evil spirits.
The elegant umbrella-like spreading tree is a popular ornamental avenue tree as it provides shade. The tree is said to have medicinal values.