Alstonia scholaris is one among the few trees which are worshiped in sacred groves. Alstonia is a widespread genus of evergreen trees and shrubs, of the family Apocynaceae. It was named by Robert Brown in 1811, after Charles Alston (1685–1760), professor of botany at Edinburgh from 1716-1760. The type species Alstonia scholaris (L.) R.Br. was originally named Echites scholaris by Linnaeus in 1767. This tree is locally known as Daiva pala, Ezhilam pala, Mangala pala and Yakshi pala as it is considered to be the abode of ancestral or natural spirits and demons. Because of it, tribals are often reluctant to sit under this tree or even pass under it for the fear of the devil.
Alstonia scholaris is common in sacred groves of Kerala as per the record of KFRI research report (2011). This evergreen tree is native to southern China, tropical Asia and Australasia.
Alstonia scholaris has an indigenous system of medicine. The bark is known as ditabark, used by Indians as traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, asthma, and a few types of fevers. It has also been used as an aphrodisiac. When damaged, the bark lets out a sticky milky latex, which is also valued for its medicinal properties.
Students’ blackboards, writing tables and slates are made from the bark of the tree. Hence, the other name for the tree is the Blackboard Tree.
This tree has got a great cultural significance in the intellectual circle, as traditionally its leaves were awarded to scholars and teachers during convocation ceremonies by the Visva Bharati University. This tradition was started by Rabindranath Tagore in Gurudeb University. Due to environmental degradation, the practice has been reduced to handing over a single leaf to the Vice Chancellor of the University.
The large branches provide favourable breeding sites for wild bees to make their hives and the pollination of the tree is carried out by insects. When the tree flowers, a plethora of insects like butterflies, bees and beetles are seen all over it. The seeds of the tree have a tuft of silky hairs at each end, and are dispersed by the wind.
Dr. Merlin Lopus
- Chandrashekara, Conservation and management of sacred groves in Kerala, KFRI, 2011