Scent of sorrow
Kiran Narain

Harsingar is planted outside small gardens to enjoy its scent
is planted outside small gardens to enjoy its scent

The ways of Nature are strange. While some plants have bright-coloured flowers and fruits or berries to attract insects and birds for pollination and seed dispersal; some pale-coloured, unattractive flowers are bestowed with strong scent for the same purpose. Three such examples of a tree, a shrub and a bulbous plant come to mind—all three flowering from September to November in North Indian plains. These are widely grown as roadside plants as well as in parks and gardens.

Alstonia scholaris or Devil’s Tree belongs to Apocynaceae family and is known as Saptaparni in Sanskrit because of its seven leaves. It is an evergreen-buttressed tree with branches whorled and exuding milky sap when cut. It is a popular roadside tree commonly known as Anjan and is easy to grow, as it is wild and distributed in sub-Himalayan tracts from Yamuna eastwards to Myanmar.

Its soft white wood is commercially used for manufacturing packing cases and matchsticks. It was used for making wooden school slates or takhti, hence it got the name scholaris. Its bright green evergreen shining foliage makes it attractive and since animals shun it due to its poisonous nature, it makes a popular avenue and park tree. Soil consisting of loam and sand is suitable and cuttings root in sand easily.

Though the flowers are small, greenish white in flat-topped clusters and may go unnoticed, yet one does not miss noticing them due to their delightful strong scent spread over long distances. It flowers between October and March or so.

Nyctanthes arbortristis (family Oleaceae) is popularly known as Harsingar or Parijat. It is a common wild shrub, which grows into a small tree if encouraged to grow freely. It grows wild in sub-Himalayan tracts, Central India and Sri Lanka and is widely cultivated in parks and gardens. People with small gardens plant it outside their periphery walls to enjoy its scent. It flowers from August to November and the flowers are highly scented.

Nyctanthes has rough leaves with stiff white hair and may be entire or coarsely toothed which grow on drooping quadrangular branchlets. Cattle do not eat them, as they are so rough underneath that in villages carpenters use them instead of sand paper for polishing.

The flowers exude lovely strong scent and bloom at night, therefore, getting the specific name arbortristis. The creamish white flowers are salver shaped with an orange tube. They are stalk less and flower in clusters of three to seven forming terminal cymes. A rich dye is obtained from the orange tube, which was used by Buddhist priests and for Tussore silk. The powerful scent of the flowers permeates the night air with a lovely fragrance. People for making garlands collect the flowers, which fall early in the morning.

The shrub is also known as Tree of Sorrow due to a folk tale being associated with it. It is believed that a princess fell in love with the Sun who soon deserted her. Unable to bear the pangs of separation, the princess killed herself and was cremated. The Tree of Sorrow arose from her ashes and that is why the shrub blooms after sunset and the flowers drop each morning unable to bear the sight of the sun.

Crinum longiflorum are lovely bulbous plants with long strap-like leaves and beautiful fragrant flowers. They are indigenous to India and are commonly grown in parks and gardens as well as outside periphery walls. They bear umbels of tubular trumpet flowers in white. Once planted in deep and rich soil, crinum can grow without much care for years together. It comes to life with the first showers of monsoons. Established clumps may flower for four to six weeks with about 12 lovely flowers to a stem, the stem being between two to three feet tall.

The bulbs should be planted in well-dug, rich soil in a permanent place, with a part of the neck of the bulb out of the ground. It may take a bulb a few years to get established and bloom freely. Thereafter, nothing much has to be done to look after them but to mulch them with manure or water from time to time. If grown in pots, re-potting should be done only after three or four years. They love full sun and are propagated by offsets.