A visit to Royal Botanical Gardens | Sunday Observer
Exploring plant life

A visit to Royal Botanical Gardens

31 October, 2021
The giant Java fig tree
The giant Java fig tree

Growing up in Sri Lanka, our regular family trip was on from Ratnapura to Kandy to visit my aunt. The trip to Kandy had a family tradition of stopping at the same places every time en route to our destination via Galigamuwa on the Colombo-Kandy road. The 116 km-trip usually took almost three hours, taking in our favourite stops.

Our first stop would be Kadugannawa, for hot Bada Irigu (maize). Then, we would go to Peradeniya and either walk or drive through the amazing Peradeniya Gardens. I loved the ancient banyan trees and the cabbage palms that almost reached to the sky. We would go through the orchid greenhouse where my wife would check out her favourite Kandyan Dancer orchids. Finally get back to the road and reach my aunt’s place.

Our trip to Kandy occurred early this year before the Covid-19 third wave engulfed the country. There were less crowds at the Gardens. Situated in the Hill capital, Kandy, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya, occupies a horse-shoe shaped peninsula surrounded by the luxuriant wallows of the muddy Mahaweli River.

Spectacles of beauty and interest

The area of 147 acres, located at an altitude of 550 metres, contains about 4,000 species. Peradeniya takes its name from pera (guava) and deniya (plain), which would suggest an early connection with the introduction or the cultivation of fruits, as the guava is not indigenous to the island.

A visit to the garden will provide spectacles of extraordinary beauty and absorbing interest for any nature lover or casual visitor. Situated 116 kms off Colombo, 4 kms off Kandy, the garden dates back from the 14th century reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha. From 1747-1780, this was made a Royal Garden and from 1780-1798, King Rajadhi Rajasingha resided therein, where a temporary residence was erected for him.

Peradeniya is well known for its large variety of plants, ornament and other creepers that produce the special spices of Sri Lanka. The great lawns highlight huge tropical trees and a variety of bamboo can be found in one place.

In 1810, on the advice of Sir Joseph Banks, a garden named Kew was opened in Slave Island. William Kerr was appointed as its Superintendent. In 1813, the garden was moved to Kalutara for the production of economic plants which could be cultivated there, on a large scale than was possible at Slave Island. Kerr died in 1814. Under the rule of his successor Alexander Moon, this garden was moved to Peradeniya in 1821 as it was found to be favourable and better adapted for the proposed Botanic establishment. The transfer of exotics from the Kalutara Garden was made by successive superintendents at least up to 1843.

Catalogue of Ceylon plants

During Moon’s superintendence, the opening of the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya, can be said to have commenced though at first, only the South-West portion of the Garden was opened and planted mostly with cinnamon and coffee. Moon published his ‘Catalogue of Ceylon Plants’ in 1824 in which were given the Botanical and native names of 1,127 plants, endemic to the island. In 1844, George Gardener was appointed Superintendent.

He died in Nuwara Eliya in 1849 and was succeeded by Dr. G.H.K. Thwaites, who for over 30 years, maintained the garden in a high state of efficiency, added largely to our knowledge of the flora of the island and gave the establishment its world-reputation. The Botanical Garden was used by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of the allied forces in the South Asia, as the headquarters of the South East Asia Command during World War II. When you proceed straight from the main entrance, you can see the Great Lawn close to Monument Road.

The most unique feature here is the Java Willow or Java Fig tree (Ficus Benjamina) which occupies the centre of the lawn like a giant living umbrella.

The ground covered by its enormous spread is about 2,500 sq. m. The lake lies in the South Drive to the left of the Main entrance. The margin of the lake is planted with marsh plants.

The bamboo collection is along River Drive to the right of the lake. The giant bamboo of Burma (Dendrocalamus giganteus) is the largest known in the world.

The stems attain a height of 30-40m and up to 20-25 cm in diametre. The average growth rate of new shoots is about 30 cm a day. There are three magnificent palm avenues; the Cabbage Palm Avenue flanks the river Driver, the palms, this avenue is over 21m in height, the Palmyra Palm Avenue which joins the flower garden with River Drive and the Royal Palm Avenue along the main central Drive.

Flowering plants

The flower garden, near the orchid house, is laid out with beds of flowering annuals and perennials.

The most striking feature here is the ribbon border of showy coleus varieties traversed by a path which leads to an octagonal conservatory. Here may be found a collection of shade-loving plants. The best known attraction of the garden is the orchid house close to the main entrance which houses more than 400 varieties of exquisite orchids.

Around the Orchid House may be seen several hardy tropical orchids including the largest orchid in the world which produces flower spikes up to 2.5 metre and the green orchid.

A spice garden gives you a first-hand introduction to the trees and plants used for the traditional Ayurvedic medicine. The Mahaweli River, Sri Lanka’s longest river surrounding the garden gives it added beauty. It won’t be wrong to say that this garden is one of the best in the world and the best in Asia.