The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Alstonia scholaris (Linnaeus) R. Brown

 

Dita Tree

 

Family

 

Apocynaceae (Dogbane Family)

Forms and Subspecies

 

None

Synonyms

 

Echites malabarica Lam.

Echites scholaris L.

Folk Names

 

Chatian (Hindi), chatiun, chattiyan, chhatim (Bengali), chhation, daivappala, devil tree, devil’s tree, dirita, dita (Tagalog), dita tree, ditta, elilampala, elilappalai, maddale (Kannada), milky pine (in Australia), nandani, pala (Malayalam, Tamil), palai, palimara, pulai, saittan ka jat, saptachadah, saptaparna (Sanskrit,“seven-leaved”), saptaparnah, saptaparni, satvin (Marathi, “seven-leaved”), schulholzbaum, shaitan (Arabic,“devil”), shaitan wood, tanitan, weißquirlbaum, yaksippala

History

 

The dita tree has been used in South Asia to manufacture writing parchment since ancient times (Miller 1988, 20*). The wood was formerly used to make writing tablets for schoolchildren (Gandhi and Singh 1991, 89*). The related species Alstonia venenata R. Br. [syn. Echites venenata Roxb.] was used for similar purposes.

Although the seeds were used in the tantric cult, no traditional use of this plant as a hallucinogen is known (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 77*).

The tree is named after a professor from Edinburgh, Scotland, C. Alston (1685–1760). In Europe, the bark was once sold as a febrifuge and tonic (Schneider 1974, 1:77*).

Distribution

 

Although the dita tree is from India, it is now found throughout all of Southeast Asia (and Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand) (Padua et al. 1987, 14). It also occurs in the tropical rain forests of the east coast of Australia and on the Solomon Islands.

Cultivation

 

It may be possible to propagate the plant using seeds. The most successful method is to transplant young trees.

Appearance

 

This evergreen tree can grow to a height of 30 meters. Its bark is rough and gray. The branches are arranged circumambiently around the trunk, so that the crown looks like a parasol. The large lanceolate leaves, which can grow as long as 25 cm, are arranged in clusters of seven. The greenish yellow flowers are small and inconspicuous; the fruits hang in pairs and form thin, slightly undulating or curved pods that can grow to 20 to 45 cm in length. A sticky and bitter sap flows through the bark.

The genus Alstonia encompasses some forty-three species that are found in all tropical zones. Some of these are difficult to distinguish from Alstonia scholaris, and they are presumably often confused with one another.

Psychoactive Material

 

—Bark, root cortex

—Leaves

—Latex

Preparation and Dosage

 

In India, when the intended use is medicinal, the bark (which possesses no aphrodisiac properties) is boiled together with rice.

The seeds are preferred when the proposed use is aphrodisiac or psychoactive in nature. Two grams of the seeds are crushed and allowed to steep in water overnight. The next day, the liquid is filtered and drunk. The dosage for aphrodisiac purposes can vary considerably among individuals. It is best to begin with 3 g per person and then slowly increase the dosage (Gottlieb 1974, 33*; Miller 1985, 11*).

 

Leaves and pseudoflowers of the dita tree (Alstonia scholaris).

 

 

The bark of the dita tree (Alstonia scholaris) is rich in alkaloids.

 

 

The dita tree (Alstonia scholaris) is both revered and feared in India and Nepal.

 

The leaves of the related species Alstonia theaeformis (Bogotá tea) are brewed to make a tea that is consumed for its stimulating effects (Lewin 1980 [orig. pub. 1929], 352*).

Ritual Use

 

The tree is considered “evil” in India. Some tribal peoples do not merely fear the tree but avoid it altogether. They believe that an evil spirit dwells within the tree that can possess any person who walks underneath the tree or sleeps in its shadow. Some also believe that the guardian of the tree can bring death to those who sleep under its branches. These conceptions may be based upon the fact that the tree can induce visions. Because of this negative folklore, however, the tree has also been spared from the destruction being visited upon other tropical trees (Gandhi and Singh 1991, 89*).

The seeds of the tree play a significant role in the sexual magical practices of the Indian tantric cult. Unfortunately, little is known about this use (Miller 1988, 21f.*).

The Australian Aborigines used the latex as an adhesive for attaching ceremonial decorations (such as feathers) to their skins for rituals (Pearson 1992, 25*). It is possible that they also knew of and utilized the psychoactive properties of the dita tree. Apart from this, we know of no traditional usages for psychoactive purposes.

Artifacts

 

In tantric magic, mantras (magical formulae) were written on pieces of bark parchment that were then used as amulets.

Medicinal Use

 

The bark is generally regarded as a tonic (Wright et al. 1993, 41). In Ayurvedic medicine, it is also used to treat fever, malaria, lower abdominal ailments, diarrhea, dysentery, digestive problems, leprosy, skin diseases, pruritus, tumors, chronic ulcers, asthma, bronchitis, and frailty. Both the latex and the tender leaves are applied externally to tumors (Sala 1993, 1:97*). In India, the bark and root cortex are boiled with rice and ingested by girls daily for one to two weeks to treat leukorrhea (Bhandary et al. 1995, 152*). In the regions of Ganjam and Godawari, it is used to treat insanity and epilepsy (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 77*), while in Nepal it is used as a febrifuge and to treat malaria (Manandhar 1980, 15*). In Assam, a cold-water extract is drunk to treat malaria (Boissya et al. 1981, 221*). In the Philippines, the bark is used as a tonic and to treat diarrhea disorders of all types. A decoction of the young leaves is drunk for beri-beri (Padua et al. 1987, 14).

The bark of the Southeast Asian species Alstonia angustifolia Wall., Alstonia macrophylla Wall. ex G. Don, and Alstonia spathulata Bl. is also used as a traditional treatment for malaria and as a tonic (Padua et al. 1987, 13). In Africa, the species Alstonia congensis Engl. and Alstonia boonei De Wild. are also made into medicines for treating malaria (Wright et al. 1993, 41f.).

“Once upon a time, in the Western Ghats or hills of India lived a shepherd called Ramu who played the flute beautifully. Every day while his goats grazed in the mountains, Ramu sat under the Chatian tree and played his flute.

 

Now, in this Chatian tree lived a fierce spirit. When Ramu first came to sit under the tree he was just about to strike him dead when he heard the boy’s flute and was charmed by the melody.

The spirit danced among the leaves and branches. Soon, when he was used to Ramu coming every day, he ventured down from the tree and introduced himself. From then on Ramu would play and the spirit would dance in great happiness. The two became good friends.”

MANEKA GANDHI AND YASMIN SINGH A FOLKTALE FROM MADHYA PRADESH

 

(1989, 89–90*)

 

Constituents

 

The seeds contain hallucinogenic indole alkaloids (alstovenine, venenatine, chlorogenine, reserpine) as well as chlorogenic acid (Miller 1985, 10*). The bark through which the latex flows contains the alkaloids ditamine, echitamine (= ditaine), and echitenines (Miller 1985, 10*; Rätsch 1992, 73*). Ditamine, echitamine, alstovenine, and venenatine occur in all parts of the plant (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 77*).

Most Alstonia species contain indole alkaloids (Majumder and Dinda 1974; Mamatas-Kalamaras et al. 1975). The New Caledonian Alstonia coriacea Pancher ex S. Moore even contains a yohimbine derivative (Cherif et al. 1989). The Malaysian species Alstonia angustifolia Wall. contains thirty-one alkaloids, yohimbine being the primary one (Ghedira et al. 1988). The Australian species Alstonia muelleriana Domin contains a complex mixture of indole alkaloids (Burke et al. 1973).

Effects

 

The bark is alleged to have aphrodisiac and, as a result of MAO inhibition (see ayahuasca), psychoactive effects. The primary constituent “alstovenine demonstrates MAO-inhibiting effects in low doses and in higher doses CNS-stimulating effects, stereotypy, and spasms. In contrast, the effects of venenatine are reserpine-like [cf. Rauvolfia spp.]” (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 77*). Alstonia “helps retain erection and delays orgasm during intercourse” (Miller 1985, 9*).

The alkaloid echitamine is said to kill the malaria pathogen; however, it is some ten times less effective than quinine. The effects upon malaria have not yet been clearly demonstrated pharmacologically (Wright et al. 1993).

“It was in Tantric India that the seed of the dita tree was first used as an aphrodisiac. Use of the drug was accompanied by an exercise that prolonged erection and delayed orgasm by control of specific genital muscles.”

 

RICHARD ALAN MILLER

 

THE MAGICAL & RITUAL USE OF APHRODISIACS

 

(1985, 11*)

 

Commercial Forms and Regulations

 

None

Literature

 

See also the entries for Mitragyna speciosa and yohimbine.

 

Burke, David E., Gloria A. Cook, James M. Cook, Kathleen G. Haller, Harvey A. Lazar, and Philip W. le Quesne. 1973. Further alkaloids of Alstonia muelleriana. Phytochemistry 12:1467–74.

 

Cherif, Abdallah, Georges Massiot, Louisette Le Men-Olivier, Jacques Pusset, and Stéphane Labarre. 1989. Alkaloids of Alstonia coriacea. Phytochemistry 28 (2): 667–70.

 

Gandhi, Manoj, and Virender Kumar Vinayak. 1990. Preliminary evaluation of extracts of Alstonia scholaris bark for in vitro antimalarial activity in mice. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 29 (1): 51–57.

 

Ghedira, K., M. Zeches-Hanrot, B. Richard, G. Massiot, L. Le Men-Olivier, T. Sevenet, and S. H. Goh. 1988. Alkaloids of Alstonia angustifolia. Phytochemistry 27 (12): 3955–62.

 

Hawkins, W. L., and R. C. Elderfield. 1942. Alstonia alkaloids. II. A new alkaloid, alstoniline from A. constricta. Journal of Organic Chemistry 7:573–80.

 

Hu, W., J. Zhu, and M. Hesse. 1989. Indole alkaloids from Alstonia angustifolia. Planta Medica 55:463–66.

 

Majumder, Priya L., and Biswanath N. Dinda. 1974. Echinoserpidine: A new alkaloid of the fruits of Alstonia venenata. Phytochemistry 13:645–48.

 

Mamatas-Kalamaras, Stylianos, Thierry Sévenet, Claude Thal, and Pierre Potier. 1975. Alcaloïdes d’Alstonia vitiensis var. novo ebudica monachino. Phytochemistry 14:1637–39.

 

Padua, Ludivina S. de, Gregorio C. Lugod, and Juan V. Pancho. 1987. Handbook of Philippine medicinal plants. Vol. 1. Laguna, Luzon: University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

 

Wright, Colin W., David Allen, J. David Phillipson, Geoffrey C. Kirby, David C. Warhurst, Georges Massiot, and Louisette Le Men-Olivier. 1993. Alstonia species: Are they effective in malaria treatment? Journal of Ethnopharmacology 40:41–45.