We couldn’t stay in Kandy without visiting the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which is a shame because they’re a good six kilometers from the city center, which means a noisy, perilous and gasoline-flavored tuk-tuk ride through heavy traffic. Once you step through the gates into a spectrum of greens, though, and you take a gulp of the velvety, spice-scented air and hear bell-like birdsong from the spiky crowns of towering palm trees, you realize that it’s definitely worth the trip.
Sitting on a hill in the crook of a bend of Mahaweli River (the longest in Sri Lanka), this 146-acre tropical Eden has been a pleasure garden since the fourteenth century, when King Wickramabahu III kept his court there and his queen frolicked about in flowery arbors. In later centuries a temple was added. Thanks to the encircling river, it only captures cool breezes but is also, according to John (ever the War Nerd), ‘eminently defensible’. However, along with the rest of the Kandy Kingdom, the grounds fell to the British in the first half of the nineteenth century.
At that time, the area was mainly planted with coffee and cinnamon. There was one Buddhist monk living on the grounds, despite the fact that the British had removed the temple. The first superintendent, Alexander Moon, identified the area as a likely spot for a Botanical Garden and cleared it of riff-raff, plant and human.
At first, the garden was a kind of botanical laboratory, where Moon and co. tested out economically viable crops. One of the things Sri Lanka is most famous for now is tea, but the very first tea plant that grew on the island was grown in Peradeniya in 1824. For several decades after that, the preferred cash crop was actually coffee—the British deforested hill after hill of the Central Highlands to plant them with the stuff. It was only after 1869, when the fungus Hemileia vastratrix aka ‘coffee rust’ destroyed 80% of plantations, that the hills were replaced by Ceylon tea. In his spare time, Alexander Moon explored the countryside collecting and cataloguing plant specimens, publishing his Catalogue of Ceylon Plants (viewable here) in 1824, a year before he died.
Moon’s large shoes were inadequately filled until 1843, when George Gardner was appointed superintendent of the gardens, formally established as the Royal Botanical Gardens in that same year. Gardner was a renowned Scottish botanist and author of Travels in the Interior of Brazil (1846) (see here ) and an enormous Catalogue of Brazilian Plants (see it here). After his untimely death in 1849, George H.K. Thwaites took charge and worked hard to put the gardens on the map. He was the one responsible for bringing the Brazilian rubber tree here and cultivating it–even now a big cash crop for the island. Although Thwaites had started out as an accountant, he made his name as a botanist after discovering that diatoms were not animals but algae. Now he has a lizard and a butterfly named after him—how many former accountants can say that? After Thwaites’s death in 1880, Henry Trimen came along and he pushed things along. He also published Flora of Ceylon, some of whose colored plates you can view in a slideshow here.
Starting from the late nineteenth-century, boatloads of European potentates started coming over and bunging trees in the ground. In 1875, King Edward VII planted a Bo tree (Ficus religiosa). In 1891 both the Crown Prince Nikolai of Russia and the King of Greece George I did a bit of ceremonial planting, little imagining their future assassinations. In 1893 it was the turn of the Emperor of Austria Franz Josef, who planted an Asoka tree (Saraca indica) and subsequently lost several family members to assassination and suicide–anyone would think that planting a tree in Kandy was bad luck! But in 1898 Prince Henry of Prussia planted an Amherstia nobilis and got along all right. Most impressively of all, in 1901 the Prince of Wales (later George V) planted a cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) that still produces huge fruit resembling those oversized grapes in size and shape. Although John could take or leave the majority of plants, he was irresistibly drawn to this specimen.
The garden has dozens of specialized collections and sections but we couldn’t see them all because walking around in the middle of the day is like wearing a suit made of steam. The Plant House seemed to be a collection of the world’s most popular house plants. I recognized a lot of them from my grandmother’s house and parents’ living room. Seen altogether like this, I realized that their main appeal lay in the beautiful patterns on the leaves, some of which looked like paint spatters, others like the exoskeletons of some primitive insect. It soon got so steamy with all the photosynthesis going on that it was difficult to breathe, so we left the Plant House and admired the outdoor scenery for a bit.
Next stop was the Orchid House. Here I learned that there are 188 orchid species in Sri Lanka, 110 of which grow here in Kandy district. The flowers varied a lot—some of them big and fleshy, others small and delicate like Japanese paper cut-outs, others hyacinth-like flower bunches. What they all had in common was that they looked like gaudy alien sex organs.
The main attraction of the gardens, though, is definitely arboreal. We wandered with our noses in the air looking up at the amazing variety of odd trees. Paths were lined with rows of palms. A sealing-wax palm caught my eye with its bright-red stalk.
A Sloanea javanica looked like a Dali tree with its sharp, jutting surreal roots. A Queensland Kauri tree (Agathis Robusta) might have been a massive stone pillar holding up the sky. It reminded me of the current inferno in Australia and how my friend Becky said that eucalyptus trees, being full of oily sap, explode in the heat of fire. Although it is indigenous to the Americas, frangipani (Plumeria rubra) seems to do well in this climate and I saw several examples of the tree with pretty, fragrant flowers. In many parts of South-East Asia it’s regarded as sacred and here I’ve seen signs calling it a ‘Temple Tree’.
A large number of trees had parasite plants or epiphytes. Some of the vines were as thick as a human arm and alarmingly determined about where they wanted to go. A few looked like step ladders, with geometrically precise spaces between the leaves.
But apart from trees, there were other visual treats. For example, a row of yellow shrubs lured me over to read the name ‘Song of India’ (Dracaena reflexa ‘Variegata’). The fernery offered a shady reprieve from the bright paths. Massive bamboo plants created a natural screen in one section near the river, and a spice garden showed me what I’d always wondered–what do pepper plants and cinnamon and nutmeg trees look like?
There was human interest, too. For one thing, this place was Lover Central. Almost every park bench, pagoda, grassy knoll or decorative boulder was occupied by a courting couple sitting as close together as possible and whispering sweet nothings in each others ears.
In the midst of some smooth-trunked trees I saw a couple of big white cows and took a photo of them and the man tending them wandered over to meet me. At first I thought he was going to tell me photography was forbidden or something, but he just wanted to know where we were from. When I said New Zealand, he smiled and replied with the two words that seem to be commonly associated with my country for a lot of Sri Lankans: Richard Hadlee.
Hadlee (for those of you who are neither New Zealanders nor Sri Lankans) was our national hero of 1980s cricket. His fast-bowling exploits were reported on radios playing in the garden over a decade of summers. With the utterance of those two words, this cow farmer, who was about my age, instantly evoked those days. Strange to think that someone so far away grew up with a similar experience, that we lived on opposite sides of a sort of mirror world.
Well, it was nice to see one of the world’s great botanical gardens but one can’t wander about in gardens forever and soon it was time to replenish fluids and to get another tuk-tuk, this time back to the hotel.