This is a love story. Growing up in Delhi at the start of every winter, I have experienced this wild intoxicating smell subsuming my body mind heart soul never knowing what it was. The smell would arrive soon after Durga Puja is over and Diwali is approaching and stay till the bitter December cold takes full control of our bodies. Then it disappears for a whole year and I start missing it like a heart broken woman longing for her lover’s embrace. Once bitten twice shy, these days in early winters, as soon as the smell starts to seduce me I try to run away from it because I know it would soon be gone leaving me high and dry. But how can you escape the seductive devil who is there in every breathe you take? Every evening as I would drive back from work, as I would take a night stroll, as I would go to bed his ephemeral and sensuous smell is always there.
I thought of finding a solution to this unrequited love and longing. How about keeping him locked in my room forever by buying the aroma oil? But for that I had to find his name. Where does this smell come from? Is it a flower, is it a tree, is it some creature?
As long as Google is there, it is not very difficult to find your loved ones though. Turns out, the smell is so unique to Delhi that a simple Google search of “aromatic flowers in Delhi early winter” showed up many articles about this seductive Casanova of smells.
The botanical name of the tree is Alstonia scholaris and is locally known as Saptaprani or Indian Devil Tree. It was named after Professor C. Alston, a botanist of Edinburgh. It has a cluster of white conical flowers which emanates this devilish smell. Several of you might have seen it lined on the two sides of most of Delhi roads and in residential parks.
Niharika Mandhana writes on WSJ article, Wake Up and Smell the Saptaparni
The word saptaparni is made up of two Sanskrit words – “sapta” and “parni” — which broadly mean seven and leaves, respectively. The leaves of the tree are found mostly in groups of seven attached around a stem, hence the name. The first part –Alstonia — of its scientific name is the last name of a botany professor in Edinburgh in the mid-18th century; the second – scholaris — is Latin for “of or belonging to a school.”
Shiv Kumar Sharma, additional director for horticulture in the New Delhi Municipal Council, remembers hearing how the tree earned the word “scholaris” in its scientific name. “It’s about how the scholars sat underneath these trees and the fragrance of the trees’ flowers helped them to gain concentration and new ideas,” Mr. Sharma says.
In Visva-Bharati, a university started by Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in India’s West Bengal state, outgoing graduates are given saptaparni leaves, common in the university’s leafy complex, as a “symbol of simplicity and being connected with the nature,” a senior administrator there told India Real Time.
Dr Govind Singh, writes on Delhi Green blog article, ‘What’s That October ‘Devilish’ Smell, Delhi?‘
A native of Indo-Malayan region, the genus is named after Professor C. Alston, a famous botanist of Edinburgh. The species has its origin in its use for making students’ black boards or slates. It is an ideal shady, easy to grow tree which is known to help control noise pollution in urban settings. Ayurveda finds the uses of Alstonia as a bitter and astringent herb for treating skin disorders, malarial fever, urticaria, chronic dysentery, diarrhea, in snake bite and for upper purification process of Panchakarma. Its bark, known as Dita Bark, is used in traditional medicine to treat dysentery and fever.
According to a 2010 news report by Indian Express the Noida administration wants to stop planting this tree as it seems to be harmful to Asthma patient. The news story ‘Pride of India’ soon to replace Noida’s harmful Alstonia trees‘ says,
The Horticulture department of Noida has decided to put the plantation of Alstonia scholaris trees on hold for now. Reason: the tree, due to its particular smell, can cause problems for asthma patients, believe officials. Considering the effects of the tree on such patients, the department has decided to plant Lagerstroemia instead.
According to officials, Alstonia Scholaris — commonly called Blackboard tree or the Indian Devil tree — would be replaced by trees that don’t affect people. “If asthma patients stand near the tree for a longer time, they could develop breathing problems. We want to make the city people and environment friendly. The effort is to plant trees like Indian rosewood (Sheeshum), Jambul, White fig and Cassia Fistula-Amaltas,” said the official.
I am not sure how much truth there is in the claim of it being harmful to asthma patient, but it sure is harmful to romantic lovers like me. What is worse is after finding the name, I ran my search for its oil on every other e-commerce website but can’t find him. It seems I am cursed to love the Indian Devil Tree till I die, only to be always longing for his smell.