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A royal asset and tourist attraction

The Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya:

by Rosanne Koelmeyer Anderson - Sunday Observer Sep 23 2007

A tourist attraction for sure with a long and grandiose history of colonialism, a monument of Kandyan King Wickramabahu III in the 14th century is the horse shoe- shaped Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya situated on 147 acres, a significant national asset to Sri Lanka.

A place not to be missed, the Royal Botanic Gardens has flourished since 1371 and stands today to tell its visitors and Botanists interesting facts about its age-old trees and plants; a unique marvel of Lankan history unfolded within the precincts of its lustrous greenery.

With over 1.4 million people visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens annually in addition to the 5 per cent school children, I am certain history enthusiasts around the world would love to see some of the memorial trees in the Gardens as well as some of the oldest and rarest trees one could find; just one of a kind in Sri Lanka. Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya.

Interviewing Dr D.S.A. Wijesundara I was enlightened about the many interesting facts about the Gardens which I too wasn't aware of although I had visited the Gardens previously.

Giant Java Willow Tree, Ficus Benjamina, a large handsome tree introduced to Sri Lanka in 1861, spreading over an area 2500 square metres

With the advent of World Tourism Day which falls today I thought I must write about one such significant tourist attraction of ostentatious splendour Lassana Sri Lanka has to offer; the Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya.

Dr Wijesundara also explained that this Garden along with the Botanic Gardens in Hakgala and Henarathgoda, Gampaha were responsible for almost all of the plant introductions of economic and environmental development in the island in the 19th century.

Activities during this period he went on to explain resulted in the development of economic and plantation crops, the emergence of important state departments such as the Forest Department in 1887 and Department of Agriculture in 1912, as well as the institutions for the development of plantation crops such and tea and rubber.

Yellow Saraga, Saraga Thaipingensis planted by first Soviet Spaceman Major Yuri Gagarin on Dec. 9, 1961

Dr Wijesundara reiterated that over the past 180 years the Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya has significantly increased its capability by emphasising high quality science, expanded contributions to bio-diversity conservation and improved public education programmes and this effort will be reinforced over the period ahead by a focus on key targets for development, and appropriate re-structuring, recruitment and training initiatives.

Enthraled by the flamboyance of the Garden's history, I eagerly noted many important specifics before I finally embarked on the exploration, in search of some of the oldest trees and plants in the garden despite the heavy downpour of rain.

Double coconut, Coco de Mer Lodoicea Maldivica (Palmae), the heaviest in the whole vegetable kingdom.

Incidentally, after the reign of King Wickramabahu III, (who in my opinion would have been a botanical enthusiast of the highest order to have made the premises his pleasure garden, was no doubt an illustrious King of yesteryear) the last Queen of Kandy was also said to have walked on the same grounds and it was one of her favourite playgrounds we are told.

To add to its wonderful history we are told that the last Viceroy of India, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten's Second World War headquarters was also situated in the Royal Botanical Garden.

Lignum Vitae (E), Guaiacum officinale, the heaviest of all wood.

With all these wonderful anecdotes in mind I moved on with two proficient officers attached to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Chaminda Ratnayake and Manoj Dissanayake whom I wish to acknowledge who took valuable time off to help me locate the trees I was interested in writing about.

One of the first botanical wonders not far from the entrance was the Double Coconut Coco de Mer Lodoicea Maldivica (Palmae), native to the Seychelles, the largest and the heaviest of the whole vegetable kingdom, a strange sea palm with a curious character, a rare plant protected by law.

Agasthis Robusta, Kauri Pine tree

It has an interesting history of course; the plant was found floating in the Indian ocean in 1500 AD but the palm was discovered in 1743 AD, amazingly weighing 10-20 kg a coconut. It apparently takes about 5-8 years to mature and about a year to germinate.

The double lobed coconuts are joined like Siamese twins and look rather endearing.

It was introduced to the Gardens in 1850.

Almost in the centre of the lawn stands yet another marvel of nature, the Giant Java Willow Tree right in the middle of this lawn. The hundred year old Giant Java Willow Tree, Ficus Benjamina, a large handsome tree indigenous to Malaysia, introduced to Sri Lanka in 1861 magnificently spreads over an area of over 2500 sq metres, which looks like a giant umbrella which has been spread over the lawn, where many lovers stop to share a moment or take photographs under its shady environs.

The suspension bridge

The enormous wood tree ,the heaviest of wood is the Lignum Vitae(E) Guaiacum officinale. Its trunk is so gigantic that even ten people may not be able to hold hands and rally around the tree.

On the contrary, in close proximity is the opposite of it, the Bulsa Tree the softest of wood, a small tree which stands to edify the curious visitor.

The Encephalatis species is also worth taking a look at as it is an endemic species, a high and very slow growing tree, I was told, while Diospyros Athrata (Ebenaceae) is apparently the most valuable endemic in Sri Lanka. Another tree with a huge trunk is Agathis Robustra, a Kauri pine introduced to the Gardens in 1865 which is frequently cultivated in the tropics and subtropics today for its timber.

It is also said to yield a resin called Kauri gum used in high quality varnish production today. Lost in the precincts of the Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya one couldn't of course miss out on seeing the range of memorial trees which stand to tell us many unforgettable tales of yesteryear.

This is a really interesting aspect the Shorea Robusta Indian Sal(E) planted by his Majesty Birendra Bir Bikram Shahdev, King of Nepal on February 25, 1980 (The Bo tree under which Lord Buddha was born I was told ) but cannot be propagated in Sri Lanka; the Mesua Ferrea, Ceylon Ironwood planted by the late Czar of Russia in 1891; the first reported memorial Bo tree, Ficus Religiosa planted by King Edward VII in 1875 and the Yellow Saraga, Saraga Thaipingensis (Fabaceae) planted by the first Soviet Spaceman, Major Yuri Gagarin on December 9, 1961.

And how could you of course leave the Gardens without taking a look at the 100 year old Suspension Bridge on the Royal Palm end which was built in 1905 which could accommodate a maximum of six persons at a time; a bit eerie but you could try it out if you wish .

The important milestones in the history of Sri Lanka's Botanic Gardens

Year            Event

1371        Peradeniya first used as a royal plea sure garden by King Wickram abahu III

1780        King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe declared Peradeniya as a Royal Garden

1799        A botanic garden established at Peliyagoda by Eudelin deJonville, a Frenchman in the service
               of  the Governor, Frederick North

1810       A botanic garden informally named 'Kew Gardens' established on Slave Island, Colombo,
              by Joseph Banks

1812       First Superintendent, William Kerr, appointed

1814       Kew Gardens' relocated to a site on the banks of the Kalu Gangaat Kalutara

1817       2nd Superintendent, Alexander Moon, appointed

1821      The garden moved to Peradeniya

1824      Moon's Catalogue of Ceylon Plants, listing 1,127 indigenous plants with their local names
             was  published. National Herbarium established.

1861      Hakgala Botanic Gardens established as experimental plot forcin chona.

1864      Thwaites Enumeratio Plantarum Zeylaniae, the first scientificcata logue of the flora of
              Sri Lanka, published

1876      Gampaha Henarthgoda Botanic Gardens established as an experimental garden for rubber.

1893       Vol. 1 of the Handbook to the 'Flora of Ceylon' first published.

1900      Vol. 5 of the Handbook to the 'Flora of Ceylon' published

1912      Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture (SLDA) established and Botanic Gardens came
             under research division of SLDA; the director, J. C. Willis, resigns in protest.

1968      The Revision of the Handbook to the 'Flora of Ceylon' Pro jectstarted

1982     Botanic gardens became separated from the research division and a Deputy Director of
            Agriculture (Botanic Gardens) appointed

1994     Botanic Gardens Division of the SLDA was elevated and a Director
              (National Botanic Gardens) appointed.

2000      Vol. 14 of the Revised Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon published

2005      Botanic Gardens separated from SLDA.

2006     The Department of National Botanic Gardens established. Workbegan to establish new dry |
             zone botanic gardens.

2007     Volume 15 of the Revised handbook, on the ferns, was published