It’s the October Delhi evening and you are walking briskly along a tree lined road with the hustle and bustle of city life in your head. Suddenly a somewhat confusing smell attracts your senses with an intensity so strong that it diverts all the chaos in your head to capture your attention almost completely. Memorable yet not so sweet, the smell makes you pace up a little, for something tells you you shouldn’t be under its spell for long.
But you’ve only gone a few steps ahead of it that the now fading but still enchanting and intoxicating smell makes you stop and look back. And you perhaps take a few steps back in an attempt to experience the mesmerizer smell once again! If you live in a colony blessed with trees, especially in the Lutyen’s part of Delhi, chances are that this smell is also entering your balconies and gardens each evening.
This characteristic Delhi ‘winter smell’ that announces and welcomes the ‘Dilli ki sardi’, emanates from Alstonia scholaris or the Scholar’s tree belonging to the category of evergreen trees or shrubs with white funnel-shaped flowers and milky sap. 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.
The tree gives a very elegant look all year round and is therefore gaining popularity with landscape architects and gardeners across North India. Called Saptparni or the Shaitan Tree (Indian Devil Tree), the tree is reported to be grown across the country and in the Western Ghats, tribal people are reluctant to sit or pass under this tree, for the fear of the devil. The tree has indeed given Delhi its characteristic smell that many in the city can now relate to. And those who come in can find something to relate to. For the identity crisis hit Delhi that is still struggling with the ownership crisis of a ‘megalopolis’ magnitude, this could only be a good thing.