Alstonia Scholaris – The Multi-Faced Plant with Enormous Positives!!!

The ancient Indian Medicinal System, Ayurveda, is supposed to have remedies for all ailments. Though with time, a huge decrease is seen in the knowledge and implementation of the theories of Ayurveda. One of the biggest reasons for this is the advancement of allopathy, which gives immediate results against slow but permanent cures done by Ayurveda. Also, with the advancement of western culture and studies, the trust and belief in Ayurveda and its concepts have seen a huge decline. Even though today the basic principles of Ayurveda stand tall and strong, we knowingly and unknowingly, reap its benefits in various forms.

Not just in the ancient Indian civilization, but the mention of the medicinal use of plants is also seen in ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations. As per WHO more than 80% of the world population depend on plants for their primary healthcare needs. A large number of medicinal and aromatic plants are found in the various forests of India. Worldwide, there are more than 21000 species of plants and herbs considered potential for its direct or indirect medicinal use. These plants are rich resources of ingredients used in the manufacturing and development of pharma, non-pharma, and even synthetic molecules. In India, for ages, we have been using plants and herbs for multipurpose use including medicines. Tulsi, Neem, Turmeric, Ginger, Pepper, etc. are part of our daily usage. There are numerous such plants and herbs which are part of our daily life and here we will understand one lesser-known but widely found plant – Alstonia Scholaris.

Saptaparni, as Alstonia Scholaris is commonly known, derives its name from two Devanagari words i.e. ‘Sapt’ meaning seven and ‘Parna’ meaning leaves as its leaves are mostly found in the whorls of seven surrounding the stem. The first part of its scientific name comes from a renowned botanist of Edinburg, Prof. C. Alston. In India, Saptaparni is found in lots in the sub-terrain of the Himalayas and also in Eastern and Western ghats. Other than India, these trees naturally grow in China, South-East Asia, and Australia.

In olden times, the bark of Saptaparni was used to prepare blackboards, writing tables, slates, etc. through which people used to study and hence another name given to this tree is Blackboard tree and the word ‘Scholaris’ is added as the second part of its name which is a Latin word for ‘Of or belonging to a school’.

The average height of the Saptaparni tree is around 40 meters but can reach a height of around 60 meters too. The leaves of Alstonia Scholaris are crusty, lustrous, and very symmetrical. They are dark green on the top while the bottom is paler with shades of brown. The bark is rough and greyish white. When the bark is dug, a light yellowish colour pungent-sticky substance comes out of it which is latex. Saptaparni is a medium-sized Evergreen Tree that can grow in various conditions ranging from dry tropical to sub-temperature. Good rainfall in the range of 100 cm – 150 cm annually and red alluvial soil is ideal for growing Alstonia Scholaris.

Flowers of Alstonia Scholaris are white, yellow, pink, or light green with 4 pedicels of 5 petals and 5 sepals arising from about the same point to form a flat or rounded flower cluster. The smell of these flowers is very typical and can travel up to a kilometre.

Tribal in India are averse to sitting or even passing from under the Blackboard tree. They call it Shaitan Ka Jhaad meaning ‘The Devil’s Tree’. To some, the pollen from the Alstonia plant can cause allergic reactions and Alstonia sap is a commonly known irritant. As the smell of its flowers is quite typical, it may cause problems for asthma patients – though there is no scientific evidence of the same.

The tree of Alstonia Scholaris can be grown by various methods through Nursery Techniques, planting, etc. in urban set-up though in forests it grows by natural pollination. When the fruits are inside the flower, the fragrance of the flower attracts pollinating bees and butterflies. When the fruits are ripe and open on the tree and its seeds, which have a cluster of silky hair-like growths on each end, are scattered by winds and thus new trees are born. If planting it, the best time to sow the seed of the Blackboard tree is between August-September.

As mentioned earlier, Alstonia Scholaris is one of the many medicinal plants found in India. Every part of this tree is useful in some or another way.

Alstonia Scholaris plant is known to be remarkably capable in the treatment of injuries. Methanol concentrates on the leaves and advances recuperating of open wounds. Saptaparni is full of biologically active components that transfuse anti-microbial properties. It is beneficial against a wide range of bacteria, both gram-positive and gram-negative, including E Coli (causing diarrhoea and dysentery), Klebsiella pneumonia (causing pneumonia), etc.

Some studies show that the bark of Saptaparni is effective to cure infections of the skin, lungs, and urinary tract along with curing food poisoning. It is also efficient against fungus and yeasts causing infections. The bark, antiplasmodial activity, is said to be a substitute for malarial drug quinine. It is found to be capable of reducing parasitic load and increasing survival time.

Other diseases cured by Alstonia Scholaris include chronic stomach pain, snake bites, tooth pain, beriberi (caused by deficiency of Vitamin B1), etc. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis, get suppressed by the Methanol extracted from the leaves, stem bark, and root bark of the Saptaparni. Some studies in Korea have revealed that Alstonia bark extract is very cogent in increasing anti-ageing effects on the skin.

Alstonia extracts have also shown abilities to reduce cough, promote sputum expulsion, and are effective against asthma. Some studies on animals have demonstrated that Alstonia has both anti-inflammatories as well as analgesic properties which reduces pain. Blackboard tree bark is also used to heal ulcers and the extracts help in the reduction of hypertension and assists to increase the production of breast milk in lactating women.

Some research done in India and Taiwan unveils hepatoprotective properties of the Saptaparni plant which are persuasive in decreasing liver damage and reestablishing liver engineering. Its strong immunomodulatory characteristic improves immunity and reduces allergic reactions in some species of animals.

Alstonia Scholaris is not just an important medicinal plant but is also used for many other purposes. Its wood is quite light in weight and is widely used for light construction, ceilings, carvings, mouldings, net floats, corks, etc. The wood is also used to make blackboards, pencils, and slates for educational usage and coffins for funeral purposes. In Kerala, the wood of the Blackboard tree is used to make masks during festivals. While its bark yields a lot of fibre, the yellow dye obtained from the bark is used to colour cotton clothes. This tree is also used to reduce pollution as it absorbs carbon dioxide in high amounts and hence is seen in the lot in highly populated cities like New Delhi, Noida, Vizag, to name a few.

Saptaparni is the State Tree of West Bengal and is locally known as ‘Chhatim’. Gurudev Ravindranath Tagore had planted a lot of Alstonia Scholaris at Shantiniketan and used to meditate under it. At the Vishwa-Bharti University in West Bengal, the graduating students of the university were given a bunch of Chhatim Leaves at convocation to give them the message of always being grounded and close to nature.

Before signing off, one quick recommendation is that though Alstonia Scholaris has many beneficial and medicinal qualities, it should be used only under the proper advice of an expert. It’s better to be safe than to repent later.

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