The Origin of School Blackboards

Is it possible for something to smell of spirits?

In the days of myth, a sweet, strange smell would waft through the post-monsoon air across the foothills of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. The locals knew it was from a lush tree with bunches of fragrant white blossoms and dark long leaves in radiating fans of foliage. Believing the tree was the abode of spirits, they avoided resting under it after dusk, when the fragrance grew strongest. In their various dialects, they called it the Devil’s Tree.

Alstonia scholaris flowering
The Devil’s Tree, Saptaparni Tree – Image: Wikimedia Commons

The very same Saptaparni (Sanskrit, indicating 7 radiating leaves), still fills the air with that heady perfume today. From October into December, the tree-lined streets of many cities in India and South-East Asia are blessed, or cursed, with that overpowering scent. You may catch a whiff of it outside your window if you’re lucky. But is it really so evil?

Alstonia scholaris Blanco1.113
Alstonia Scholaris, Illustration by Francisco Manuel Blanco – Image: Wikimedia Commons

Saptaparni also goes by other names: The Blackboard Tree in common company and Alstonia Scholaris among scientific folk. Both indicating the fact that for centuries the mottled grey bark was used for making blackboards for classrooms. It is also a recommended timber for making pencils, which we love. Did I mention that the bark is used in several natural medicines and is a natural source of a quinine-like substance to fight malaria? This is a very talented tree!

Children in rural school
Children in rural India writing on wooden slates – Image: Wikimedia Commons

When you walk down a tree-lined street some day soon and smell that sweet perfume in the air, or catch a glimpse of the white flowers in the canopy, imagine all the pencils that came from it. Or imagine all the sacred Balinese masks that were carved out of the wood. Or maybe let your mind wander over the fact that an ancient Buddhist sect believe this is the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

So many stories of light, dark and knowledge to scribble on to the blackboard of your mind. Perhaps the devil plays tricks, or maybe he merely distributes pencils.

  1. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Pencil Review –
  2. Apsara Platinum Extra Dark Pencil Review –
Share your stationery love