Friday, October 9, 2009

A Tree Like Alice

At present I have neither garden nor potted plants- leaving plants at different locations when transferred has been most heartbreaking, so I now only enjoy the greenery that exists outside my home. I have lived in homes with gardens at various times, and even though I lack a green thumb, I have loved my plants. Not the various malis we've employed, though- they have been expensive, erratic, and often quite ruthless: a moment's inattention had our beautiful croton bush decapitated. They've also amused us with their names for the plants- candytuft was called 'chandi-top', which sounds rather apt, actually!
For a long time I wasn't sure of the name of the tree pictured above. We had one in our back yard, and the younger son had managed to fix a seat for himself with a cushion, and made himself a tree house of sorts. I think some of his soft toys also climbed up with him sometimes! One fine day the younger son came home from school and informed me that the tree's correct name was Alistonia, the school mali being his infallible source. The tree was promptly named Alice, as in "Can you call A in to do his homework now?"
"Where is he?"
"Must be sitting in Alice"
We had a problem, though, when Alice grew too big for our little backyard, and blocked the little winter sunshine we received there. Alice had to be trimmed, but whichever mali we've ever employed has not been able to understand the concept of trimming. Imagine going to the hairdresser to get your hair trimmed neatly, and emerging totally bald. That's what happened to poor Alice. The poor son was devastated. The winter sunshine no longer felt warm on our skins. Shortly afterwards we were transferred yet again, so I have no idea if our Alice is still there or not.

Later on, we learned that the Latin name for Alice is Alstonia scholaris. In Hindi it is also known as Saptaparni, among other terms.
Common name: Dita bark, Devil tree • Hindi: शैतान का झाड Shaitan ka jhar , Chitvan चितवन (• Marathi: Satvin • Malayalam: Daivappala • Tamil: ஏழிலை பிள்ளை Ezilai piLLai முகும்பலை mukumpalai • Bengali: Chattim • Sanskrit: सप्तपर्ण Saptaparna
Botanical name: Alstonia scholaris Family: Apocynaceae (oleander family)

This elegant evergreen tree is found in most parts of India. The generic name commemorates the distinguished botanist, Prof. C. Alston of Edinburgh, 1685-1760. The species name scholaris refers to the fact that the timber of this tree has traditionally been used to make wooden slates for school children. Its is commonly known as the Devil Tree, as it is considered to be the abode of the devil, in popular imagination. In October small, green yet fragrant flowers appear. All parts of the tree can be considered poisonous. It is a tall elegant tree with greyish rough bark. Branches are whorled, and so are the leaves, that is, several of them coming out of the same point. The tree is really elegant whether it is flowering or not. The slightly rounded, leathery, dark green leaves form whorls of 4-7. And a very regular branching gives the tree a beautiful shape. The wood is too soft for making anything - so it is usually used in making packing boxes, blackboards etc. Its bark, known as Dita Bark, is used in traditional medicine to treat dysentry and fever. On the Western Ghats, tribal people are reluctant to sit or pass under this tree, for the fear of the devil. (

The Alstonia is in bloom now- a piquant, sweet and spicy perfume fills the air around it, especially in the evening. It is a smell that I love, but have come to dread, as my older daughter is severely allergic to it. And she happens to live in an area that is full of Alstonia. So I feel sorry for her whenever I smell poor Alice! Such is life.

Edited to add: By a strange coincidence, Anil P also blogged about this same tree recently, here.
His post has some awesome pictures of Alice!


Natasha said...

What a lovely post.
I am not sure I have encountered the tree, but she does sound lovely.
And isn't it sad that because of your daughter's allergy, you can't enjoy the tree any more :-(

And it is wonderful to have you back in action!

SUR NOTES said...

Alice sounds magical.
And having a name like shaitan ka jhar adds to the bewitching aura.

ra said...

What a lovely lady, Alice.
I had a gardener here in London, who absolutely LOVED pruning and his idea of pruning was to kill the plant totally.

Era said...

I enjoy how you've given this tree such a vivid personality. Here's to the memory of Alice. Cheers!

Unknown said...

I adore chhatim . It reminds me of Santiniketan and happy times and it presages winter for me

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Banno said...

Loved 'He must be sitting in Alice'. We should all have Alices to sit in. Best de-stresser I can think of.

dipali said...

@Rayna M.Iyer: Thanks. Yes, now my pleasure in the beautiful blooming trees is strongly diluted:(
@Sur: It certainly does!
@Ra: Gardeners, malis- all the same:(
@Era: Thanks! I was going past Victoria Memorial yesterday evening- lots and lots of Alstonia perfuming the air!
@eve's lungs: Yes, it heralds pleasant weather here.
@Bijoy: Thanks for the invitation.
@Banno: So true!

Sue said...

I want a tree house. *sigh*

dipali said...

@Sue: So do I, Susie, so do I. Although any reasonably sized tree would cower if I laid foot on it:(

Ron said...

I always wanted a tree house. Alice sounds wonderful. Hows your hand?

Sujatha Bagal said...

I hope you have a good diwali, Dipali. Thank you for your wishes and for your wonderful comments. :)


dipali said...

@Ron: Join the queue! The hand is trying hard to get well:)
@Sujatha: I had a peaceful Diwali, thanks,just my parents and I, as my husband is travelling and my son is away this vacation. I'm wondering why I wasn't reading you regularly for so long! I love your blog:)

Anil P said...

What a coincidence indeed. I happened to write a post on the same tree a few days ago. Unforgettable fragrance.

dipali said...

@Anil P: That's really a coincidence! Great post, by the way- I'll just link it.