by Shanika Pitigala
Passing this location through tarred roads, viewing its beauty at a glance, one really cannot appreciate the full range of treasures contained in in the Peradeniya Gardens. Walking beneath the shade of the giant palm trees and inhaling the fragrance of unknown numerous flowers, life arrives even more fresh than one expects it to be. The salubrious environs within this garden are indeed unparalleled.
For the many years that I lived in Kandy I have passed this area a thousand times, walked and run on those paths, and all that was ever explored was the beauty of the greenery and the colourful flowers.
The Peradeniya Botanical Gardens or rather the Royal Botanic Gardens is not only a treasure trove of biodiversity, but is testimony to great reforms that occurred in the ancient hill country. The earliest records pertaining to the Gardens go back to the year 1371, i.e. the time of King Wickramabahu III. It has since then seen the reigns of many Kings and been silent witness to great political upheaval including the British conquest. Before Alexander Moon transformed it into a garden in 1821 a priest had been residing there.
History mentions a Vihare and Dagaba constructed by King Wimaladharma, later developed by King Rajadi Rajasinghe. When the marauding British entered the city walls and occupied it, they were destroyed leaving no trace.
It is unimaginable that these paths once went through a garden of commercial crops such as cinnamon and coffee. Today it is 147 acres in extent, girdled by the Kandy-Peradeniya road and the Mahaweli. After George Gardner took over from Moon, commercial plants including Jak, Vegetables and coconuts were cultivated to be sold by the Government Agent in Kandy. Gardner’s contribution towards the development is nevertheless remarkable.
He explored the country to collect countless species of flora. After him the Gardens were taken over by Dr. Thwaites who looked after it for 30 long years affecting a great number of improvements. After that, it was developed into one of the best botanical gardens in the world.
Some of the most ancient and oldest trees are to be found here, said the Director of the Department of Botanical Gardens Dr Cyril Wijesundara. Some plants bear historical importance as they were planted by celebrities and people of high office. For example King Edward in 1875 is one among many who have planted sapling here. Such ‘celebrity trees’ are among the 4000 different types of species of trees and 10,000 others in the Botanical Gardens.
The Royal Botanical Gardens is a veritable museum of endemic plants and is a facility wher many experiments are carried out. At the moment there are 6 scientists included in the floriculture research team. The botanists in the gardens have explored and documented the floral wealth of Sri Lanka, and continue to do so. In fact it is the largest bio-repository in Sri Lanka with over 148,000 specimens (all the plants found in Sri Lanka up to now are preserved as dried specimens in the Herbarium.
The Gardens draw hundreds of thousands of visitors, including celebrities. It is a ‘must stop’ for Heads of State and other high profiled visitors. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like many of his predecessors, has visited the Gardens. He was there earlier this month inspecting new developments. During his visit the President ordered that sand mining in the other side of the river (towards Gannoruwa) be stopped.
The facility has been meticulously designed or the evolving of the landscape has been carefully strategized. It contains, for example, the Orchid House Fernery, Great Lawn, Sri Lanka Pond, Spice Garden, Flower Garden, Palm Avenues, Plant House, Cactus house, Bamboo Collection, Arboretum, Double Coconut Palms, the Cycad Collection, Medicinal Plant Garden, Students’ Garden, the Pandanus Collection, the Ebony Collection, the Agave Collection, the Palm Collection, the Conifer Collection, the Aquatic Plant Collection, the Lawn Grass Collection and of course the Memorial Trees.
As one enters through the impressive and ornate gates, one is greeted by both the amazing spectrum of greens as well as a number of colorful flowers and plants. The degree of attention to the plants themselves is evidenced by the fact that not a single leaf seems out of place. The palm trees are wonderful and walking besides them makes one feel a dwarf among giants. I used to wonder as a child, whether these trees reached out to a gateway in Heaven, as they seemed that close to the skies above.
With the touch of the gentle breeze, heading along the Royal Palm Avenues, looking at the tall palm trees that reaches out to the skies above was a heavenly walk until one of us tripped on an empty bottle of water lying across the path. There was litter scattered around the trees and under the benches. It was, putting it mildly, ungainly. Litter is akin to the proverbial drop of cow dung in a pot of milk; makes it unpalatable. The well maintained garden as witnessed from the entrance holds so much promise that the neglect and indeed the vandalism perpetrated by errant visitors is simply heart breaking.
Further into the gardens it appeared as though the litter and garbage were invading the flora in some places. When we saw some people picking up the litter and when we realised that this was their job, there was a sense of relief. That was short-lived though. The problem is bigger than a couple of careless visitors dropping the occasional toffee wrapper.
Visitors simply don’t understand that it is irresponsible and downright callous to desecrate the Gardens and indeed any and all public property. In this case, they could be doing irreversible damage to the plants, especially considering that this treasure trove contains endemic plants that are threatened with extinction. The authorities do their best, but their best has to be complemented by responsibility and decency on the part of each and every visitor if we are to preserve this beautiful place for generations to come.
Dr Wijesundara said that the workers at the Peradeniya Gardens clean the Gardens three times a day. He pointed out that the waste is not generated within the premises, but is produced solely by visitors. He revealed that a total of over 1.4 million visits the Gardens annually including nearly 250,000 foreigners. Numerous notices regarding littering go unheeded, clearly.
The use of polythene in the gardens was once banned, and visitors were requested not to bring polythene inside the gardens but to use alternatives, yet the measures are proved unsuccessful. The security persons of the gardens are vigilant of these acts but sometimes it is hard to trace who littered with the massive amount of persons visiting.
Perhaps they could take a cue from the Wild Life authorities at Horton Plains who physically check each and every visitor for polythene.
Apparently ‘couples’ are another problem that the authorities have to deal with, especially since a large number of school children visit the Gardens throughout the year. Dr. Wijesundera said that nearly 250,000 students come on education trips and for other academic work.
Many teachers have complained about ungainly behaviour by couples. To resolve the issue a separate area has been set aside for lovers with a ‘caution’ bulb of warning.
Shutterbugs are also a problem. The beauty of the trees and flowers naturally make visitors want to take pictures, but not all of them are aware that some of these trees are very old and need to be cared for delicately.
For example the Giant Java Willow Tree, Ficus Benjamina, is one of the major attractions of the Gardens, the tree spreading over an area of 2500 square metres. The tree is well known as the ‘Ibba Tree’ (tortoise tree) after the peculiar formation. It was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1861, and is also one of the oldest trees in the Gardens.
Visitors are allowed to come near the tree, but it is not healthy for the tree when people stand and dance or hang by the branches doing Tarzan impressions. There have been occasions when overenthusiastic visitors have actually broken branches. The guards are of course vigilant and are quick to caution those who overstep limits, but they alone cannot do it.
The Government plans to set up 10 botanical gardens in the island by the year 2016. It would be wonderful to have 10 more ‘Peradeniya Gardens’, but it would certainly take a lot of effort, and a lot of responsibility on the part of the citizens.
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya would still, I am sure, remain the jewel in the crown of landscape gardening. Courtesy: The Nation