Vesak Flowers: A burst of colour | Sunday Observer

Vesak Flowers: A burst of colour

26 May, 2019
Vistas of the forest: The Vesak Orchid flowers bloom on the branch of a tree in heights of more than 15 metres above ground
Vistas of the forest: The Vesak Orchid flowers bloom on the branch of a tree in heights of more than 15 metres above ground

“I want to capture the ‘Vesak Mal’ on my camera,” I told my younger son a few days before Vesak Poya day. Between the months of April and May, one can witness the pinkish-purple beautiful ‘Vesak Mal’ (scientific name dendrobium mccarthiae) on tall trees which are rare and fast vanishing. The endemic native orchid flower, grows especially, in ecosystems of wet zone tropical rainforest patches in the outskirts of the Sinharaja forest in the Ratnapura district.

“I have a friend called Asiri Sampath in Ayagama, who is well versed about the Vesak Mal. I can contact him,” my son said eagerly. I was very much interested because I had seen Vesak Mal in this village sometime back and thought it would be a rare opportunity for me to capture the stunning images of the exotic flower. It blooms in May, the month of Vesak, thus it is named Vesak Mal.

One morning we reached Asiri Sampath’s residence, driving along the highway on a steep meandering road, punctuated with hair-pin bends, connecting Ayagama and Pimbura from Ratnapura via Idangoda.

Asiri joined us with three of his friends and our final destination was the Kukulugala peak wilderness (elevation 704m). It lies in the south of Ratnapura, on the northern boundary of the Sinharaja forest near Pimbura. Its mean annual rainfall ranges between 1,500 -2,000mm.

We headed towards the east of the village, with the imposing Kukulugala mountain range in the background. A smooth drive on the five kilometre stretch took us to the village of Pumbura. The road was deserted and silent, not being motorable further up. Asiri told us to park the car in the compound of a village house and we decided to trek the rest of the mountain by foot.

Young nature lovers, Asiri Sampath and his friends took us to the Kukulugala forest patches through tea plantations. To my surprise, I spotted a cluster of Vesak flowers in full bloom in the forest canopy near a stream. The late morning sun shone brightly and the heat slowed our pace. It took us around two hours to reach the summit of the Kukulugala forest patches.

The Vesak flowers thrive in the humid climate in the low-country Wet Zone up to an elevation of about 2,000 feet and are profusely found in the south western lowland forest patches in the Ratnapura district and the eastern part of the Kalutara district.

The Vesak flower grows on the trunks of mature trees with no connections to soil, nor does it get any nourishment from the host tree. The mass of roots to which the plant is attached gathers decaying plant matter creating moss from which it draws the necessary nutrients. The flowers bloom on mature trees about eight metres above ground.

The Vesak flower is an epiphyte plant that grows on tall trees with heavy barks, getting moisture and nutrients from the air, rain and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. The species grow in the upper parts of tree trunks and on large branches of mature trees. Eventually, the fresh flowers which last more than two weeks gradually wither, making seeds from the stems of the dying flower for their offspring.

Mesmerizing hues

Vesak flowers, large and faintly scented, are produced in pairs at the nodes of the leafless stem (pedudo bulb), each 3 inches in length and about the same in breadth. They are pinkish-purple in colour with the labellum (lower petal) purple with a pinkish border, and a deep purple blotch at the throat, and have a drooping habit. The flowering season coincides with the monsoon.

At the foothill of mountain, we met a villager called Dharmawardena, who has been obsessed with the Vesak flowers since his childhood in his village in Pimbura. He says the flower is fast vanishing and are rarely seen blooming in the Vesak season.

The Vesak orchid has been featured in Sri Lankan postal stamps twice. The first stamp depicting a Vesak flower was a 15 cent stamp issued in 1950 and the second stamp was issued in 1994. These stamps showed the Vesak flower dendrobium mccarthiae, as one of the most beautiful native orchids. It has also been a provincial flower of the Sabaragamuwa Province.

This beautiful wild orchid, endemic to Sri Lanka was named in 1855 in honour of Lady McCarthy, wife of Sir Charles MaCarthy, then Governor of Ceylon. The flower has become a collector’s item since colonial days because it was endemic to Sri Lanka and led to its decline in the 1900s. This led to its listing as a protected species in 1937 under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance.

According to observations, one of the causes for the depletion of the Vesak flower is the destruction of the wet zone rainforest reserves which are its natural habitat. “Visitors and even villagers uproot these plants from the forest and re-plant them in their homes. This leads to the decline of the flower from the forest patches,” Dharmawardena says.

The Vesak flower is protected by law. However, the law alone will not be able to save the Vesak orchid, the biggest threat to its survival being the destruction of its natural habitat. At the same time, logging of mature trees and encroachment of humans into the ecosystem has vastly reduced their numbers.

Enthralled by viewing the Vesak flowers in the forest canopy, we started our descent after three hours in the company of the young nature lovers, Asiri and his friends. Kukulugala once rich with Vesak Orchid flowers, is the perfect place for genuine nature lovers.