indian express

Written by Deepu Sebastian Edmond | Published: December 5, 2010.

Delhi winters are remembered by the smell of the Saptaparni tree in full bloom.

The last week of October confuses Delhiites to no end. To wear,or not to wear,the woollens. When five o’ clocks in the evenings start looking like six o’ clocks.

Then there is that smell. “A fragrance that makes you turn your head and wonder if you really like it,” as Pradip Krishen puts it in his Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide. More confusion. But,at least then you know it is time to unpack the sweatshirts.

Delhi winters are remembered by the smell of the golf ball-size clusters of tiny greenish-white blooms of the Saptaparni tree,which flowers just in time to herald the cold season.

Krishen, however, spoils the party at the outset. “The flowers are an environmental cue— but not to the cold. They tell us that the soil is drying up. By October-end,the rainy season is far behind us,and the moisture has left the soil,” he says. It is then a mere coincidence that the winter is around the corner when the flowers come out.

Saptaparni got its name from the funnel arrangement of four-nine leaves around a branchlet. Seven — sapta — is a suitable,harmless number in between.

The scientific name for it is Alstonia scholaris. The tree came to have ‘Scholaris’ as its species name because its bark was used to make writing slates. Which is good,because one of its other uses is to make coffins.

The fragrance wafts through as the darkness sets in. “The tree does not invest much by way of making its flowers attractive to pollinators. It compensates for its unattractive flowers with its fragrance,” says Govind Singh, editor of the Delhi Greens Blog. “Moths pollinate the flowers, and they are guided by the fragrance at night,” says Krishen. Fruits, long thin follicles, appear in April. They open while on the tree, and seeds, which have tufts of hair at both ends, are dispersed.

Saptaparni is not native to Delhi. “The tree grows in the sub-Himalayan tract,at a height of 2,500 feet. The first trees in the city were planted in the 1950s in the Golf Links and Golf Course,” says Krishen. Even today,Archbishop Makarios Marg, parts of Lodi Road and Zakir Hussain Marg which border the Delhi Golf Club, and the Club itself are the best areas to spot the Saptaparni.

Even though Krishen notes in his book that the trees have been remarkably resistant to the city’s pollution,there has been a price to pay. “While driving up to Rishikesh, I have seen trees that are 80-90 feet tall. Delhi’s trees are stunted; they are one-third of what they would have been had they been in their habitat,” says Krishen.

The city planners prefer Saptaparni as an avenue tree more for its evergreen-ness than scent. “The tree does not shed all its leaves in any season,and so gives good shade in the summer. It also helps that it gives out a distinct scent,” says Subhash Chandra, New Delhi Municipal Corporation’s (NDMC) Director of Horticulture. Chandra notes that the Saptaparni is a fast-growing tree, reaching full growth in less than 20 years.

That Saptaparni has become a favoured source of shade would be a cause of amusement to those who know its common name,which is the Indian Devil Tree. Travellers are forbidden from sleeping under the tree at night; men are advised against going near it in while the tree is in full bloom. No one knows why, but it can be safely assumed it is the mysterious fragrance.

But Delhi sleeps soundly in the shade of the Devil.

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