The smell of winter

Delhi winters are remembered by the smell of the Saptaparni tree in full bloom

The last week of October confuses Delhiites to no end. To wear, or not to wear, the woollens. When five o' clocks in the evenings start looking like six o' clocks.

Then there is that smell. "A fragrance that makes you turn your head and wonder if you really like it," as Pradip Krishen puts it in his Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide. More confusion. But, at least then you know it is time to unpack the sweatshirts.

Delhi winters are remembered by the smell of the golf ball-size clusters of tiny greenish-white blooms of the Saptaparni tree, which flowers just in time to herald the cold season.

Krishen, however, spoils the party at the outset. "The flowers are an environmental cue but not to the cold. They tell us that the soil is drying up. By October-end, the rainy season is far behind us, and the moisture has left the soil," he says. It is then a mere coincidence that the winter is around the corner when the flowers come out.

Saptaparni got its name from the funnel arrangement of four-nine leaves around a branchlet. Seven sapta is a suitable, harmless number in between.

The scientific name for it is Alstonia scholaris . The tree came to have 'Scholaris' as its species name because its bark was used to make writing slates. Which is good, because one of its other uses is to make coffins.

The fragrance wafts through as the darkness sets in. "The tree does not invest much by way of making its flowers attractive to pollinators. It compensates for its unattractive flowers with its fragrance," says Govind Singh, editor of the Delhi Greens blog. "Moths pollinate the flowers, and they are guided by the fragrance at night," says Krishen. Fruits, long thin follicles, appear in April. They open while on the tree, and seeds, which have tufts of hair at both ends, are dispersed.

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