The Scholar Tree

A medium-to-large evergreen tree with a dense crown and a straight cylindrical bole... One may not recognise the tree, but he/she will not fail to notice the strong fragrance of the flowers, which bloom October onward. The Scholar tree (Alstonia Scholaris/सातवीण, सप्तपर्णी) is an elegant evergreen species. 

Saptaparni in Sanskrit means ‘seven leaves’, and is based on the fact that 4 to 8 simple leaves - more often seven - occur in a circle at each node around the stem. The tree has traditionally been used to make wooden slates & black boards for school children. Hence the tree is also known as Black board tree. Since ancient times, the Scholar tree has been used to make paper in India. The tree has been also recommended for the manufacture of pencils. These things help to explain the name of the species, scholaris.

The tree is really elegant whether it is flowering or not. In October small, cream or greenish white colored fragrant flowers appear. Inflorescence mostly formed of dense bunches of flowers, filling the air at dusk with a distinct and unmistakable fragrance. The pungent fragrance is described variously as ‘strong’, ‘heady’, ‘intoxicating’, ‘solidifying the air’, ‘fragrance of peace & contentment’ and so on... Those who like it can’t seem to have enough of it; there are others who complain of headaches and breathing troubles too. It is a tall, fast-growing tree with greyish rough bark and milky sap. The leaves are whorled, that is, several of them coming out of the same point. Leaves are slightly rounded, leathery, dark green in color. This gives the tree a beautiful shape.

In India, many tribal peoples believe that the tree is evil and avoid it completely. They say that the tree is inhabited by an evil spirit who will possess any individual who dares walk or sleep beneath it. This spirit is also said to kill any individual who chooses to sleep beneath its branches. Local superstition about the tree mainly stems from the fact that its milky sap is rich in poisonous alkaloid, and thus the tree is shunned by cattle. Thanks to this belief, Devil’s tree has been spared much of the destruction that has faced other species of tree in India. 

The hardy species can be grown in a variety of climatic conditions in India. However, it prefers a fairly moist habitat. It is also the State Tree of West Bengal.

Scholar tree has many medicinal properties like anti-microbial, anti-amoebic, anti-diarrheal, anti-hypertensive, anti-malarial, febrifuge, stimulant, hepato-protective, immuno-modulatory, anti-cancer, anti-asthmatic, antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-fertility, anti-diabetic etc. In Ayurveda it is used for treating skin disorders and for upper purification process of Panchkarma. It is also useful to purify blood & relieve respiratory disorders and known to rejuvenate the digestive system.

The tree is moderately fast growing & coppice freely. When in flower, they are often surrounded by pollinating bees and butterflies. The fruits open on the tree and the seeds, which have a tuft of silky hairs at each end, are dispersed by wind. It can be easily propagated by seeds and also by cuttings. It is often planted as an avenue tree and as ornamental in gardens.

The Beauty Leaf

As the name suggests, Indian Laurel (Calophyllum Inophyllum/उंडी, नागचाफा) has attractive and beautiful foliage. Because of its decorative leaves, fragrant flowers and spreading crown, it is best known as an ornamental plant. But this plant has more to its credit.

Also known as Sultan Champa, it is a large evergreen tree native to southern coastal India. It is a low-branching and slow-growing tree with a broad and spreading crown. Due to its slow growth & ornamental appearance, the tree is often planted in urban areas for beautification. It is valued for its deliciously scented snow-white flowers that are reminiscent of orange blossom. The fragrant flowers have been prized as an adornment and as a perfume. But the cherry on cake is its flowering can occur year-round. If not year-round, usually two distinct flowering periods are observed, in late spring and in late autumn. 

Besides being a popular ornamental  tree, its wood is hard & strong and has been used in construction or boat-building. It grows best in sandy well drained soils in coastal areas but will tolerate clays, calcareous soils and rocky soils. It is also found higher up the rivers along river margins. The tree demands light and prefers full sun. It is sensitive to frost and fire. It tolerates occasional water-logging in coastal areas.

Indian Laurel is a multipurpose plant, and is harvested from the wild for local use as a medicine and source of materials. The tree is planted for shade and for reforestation & afforestation. Also used to provide shelter from the wind and as an efficient shore protector in most places. The mature fruit is burned as a mosquito repellent. The fruit is a source for bio-diesel is used in treating skin disorders, diarrhea, osteo-arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Kapha and Pitta imbalance disorders and more.

The seeds yield viscous oil, known as Domba oil, which is of excellent quality for soap manufacture; it is also used as an illuminant and in local medicine. It may be employed as a remedy for rheumatism, ulcers and skin diseases. Bark is said to be an astringent. A decoction of the bark and latex is used medicinally, internally against diarrhoea and after childbirth, externally against skin and eye diseases and rheumatism. Leaves, flowers and seeds are sometimes also used in local medicine. 

Beauty leaf usually propagated by seeds or cuttings. It makes a good specimen for street, parking lot as a shade tree and is both wind and salt tolerant, making it especially useful for coastal locations. It becomes twisted and contorted when exposed to constant wind, creating an interesting specimen. Beauty leaf is sometimes used as a tall hedge or windbreak around tennis courts and similar places. It could be used more often as an urban street and garden tree.

The Black Palash

Sandan (Desmodium Oojeinensis/तिवस, तिनसा, काळा-पळस) is a medium sized deciduous tree. Though very beautiful, the tree is very much neglected in urban area. It bears numerous flowers which are pinkish-white in colour, borne in short racemes. The new leaves add more beauty to it. Leaves are trifoliate, with large, rigidly leathery leaflets.

Flowering of the tree is conspicuous and afford a beautiful sight, making Sandan a versatile ornamental tree. It attracts number of birds and bees. The flowers of the tree have significant similarities to that of Palash except for the size & colour. The leaves shape is also similar up to some extent. Only significant difference is the bark of Sandan is somewhat dark brown. Hence in Marathi, tree is known as Kala Palas which means 'black Palash'.

The tree does well in lowland alluvial soils as well as on dry exposed sites & eroded hills. It also occurs on red clay, black cotton and rocky soil. Young trees and seedlings need a moderate amount of shade, but once established they require full sunlight for best development. Although young trees are frost sensitive, mature trees are hardy and drought tolerant. Sandan coppices well and produces abundant root-suckers. This characteristic is particularly useful for controlling soil erosion along steep banks and eroded hillsides.

Sandan also has numerous uses. The wood is hard, tough, close-grained, elastic and durable. It is highly valued in India for making agricultural implements. It is also a specialty timber for marine plywood. A red, transparent, astringent gum is obtained from the trunk. Bark fibres are suitable for making rope. Sandan has a range of medicinal uses which include astringent, antipyretic, anti-dysenteric.

It is propagated by seeds & root cuttings. Seeds should be soaked in water for 24 hours before sowing. This facilitates germination.

The tree comes up readily in blanks in the forest, on hilly slopes, landslips and bare places. In addition, this species has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria; these bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is utilized by the growing plant but some can also be used by other plants growing nearby. This could make it a valuable pioneer agroforestry species!