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Walking barefoot in the park

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Nature’s bounty At the botanical gardens in Peradeniya
Nature’s bounty At the botanical gardens in Peradeniya

KANDY The gardens in Peradeniya are a treasure trove of flora, and are steeped in history

No visit to Kandy should be considered complete without seeing the magnificent botanical gardens at Peradeniya, just four km away on the road to Colombo. Spread out over 150 acres on a loop in the Mahaweli river, the park is bounded by water on three sides except the South, where it abuts the main road.

To tell the truth, I — and my journalist colleagues from India — had not been particularly enthused by the idea when our driver, who doubled up as travel guide, said that our itinerary included a stop at the gardens on our way back to Colombo from Kandy.

But once we stepped inside, our perception changed. Soon, we were happily trudging along the myriad pathways inside, drinking in the spectacular sights.

‘Royal’ trees

The horseshoe-shaped garden has over 4,000 plant species, amongst which some of the better known ones are the palms, orchids (over 300 varieties) and the giant bamboos.

It is also of abiding interest to history buffs, because of the many memorial trees planted by visiting royalty and statesmen around the great lawn: by the Tsar of Russia in 1891; by King Edward VII even earlier, probably the first memorials; the Cannonball Tree planted in 1901 by King George V and Queen Mary of Britain, so called because its fruits look like cannon balls, and the Yellow Saraga, planted by the first spaceman, Major Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and many others. There’s more of the history connection: the last Viceroy of India, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Second World War South East Asia Command headquarters was also situated in the Royal Botanical Garden. The park’s origins are claimed to date back to the 14th century when it was a pleasure garden of the Kandyan King Wickramabahu III, but it may be more properly dated back to 1821, when the present garden was established under a British superintendent, Alexander Moon.

Catalogue

He published his landmark Catalogue of Ceylon Plants, listing 1,127 indigenous plants with their local names in 1824, and also established a national herbarium.

After Moon, the gardens languished for some years; but with the appointment of botanists, George Gardner, and later Dr. G.H.K. Thwaites, the gardens flourished.

About Thwaites, it has been written that over a period of 30 years, he “maintained Peradeniya in a high state of efficiency, and made it famous as a scientific as well as utilitarian institution. His great acquirements and steady devotion to science have added a prestige to the Gardens and given them a world-wide reputation.” Thwaites’ ‘Enumeratio Plantarum Zeylaniae,’ published in London in 1858-64, is the standard book on the botany of the island.

A park with 4,000 species has plenty to write about; just a few will suffice to give a taste of what it holds.

Double whammy

Not far into the park is the double coconut Coco de Mer Lodoicea Maldivica, a sea palm native to the Seychelles, reputedly the largest and heaviest in the vegetable kingdom. The double coconuts come conjoined like Siamese twins, take a year to grow to fruition, and can weigh well upwards of 10 kg each. The species was introduced in 1850.

Yet another marvel is the century-old Giant Java Willow Tree, a tree indigenous to Malaysia, introduced in 1861; it looks somewhat like a giant parasol spread on the lawn.

Another remarkable species is the Lignum vitae guaiacum officinale, whose wood is so dense that it sinks in water.

Impressive

Right at the back, beyond the impressive Avenue of Royal Palms (as the name suggests, an avenue lined with tall palms) is a picturesque century-old suspension bridge across the river.

Beautifully laid out — and beautifully maintained — the park attracts close to a million and a half visitors every year, making it not only a major tourist attraction but also a national asset.

SHIV S KUMAR

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