Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/September 1908/The Botanical Gardens of Ceylon








"AN English glass house glorified" is the description which a British friend of the writer gave to the garden at Peradeniya, Ceylon. And such it truly is. The brilliant foliage, the strange orchids and pitcher plants, the luxuriant ferns, the uncanny screwpines, are just what one might see in a gentleman's conservatory—only more wonderful and luxuriant, grown taller and more fair. As a "show place" these gardens are not equaled anywhere in the world and as a place of scientific interest to botanists there are few rivals. Hæckel, the German zoologist and philosopher, said of his visit to Peradeniya that in the four days which he spent there he learned more botany than he could have learned at home in as many months of hard study.[1]

Ceylon has been described as a "dew-drop on the brow of India" and so far as position is concerned it is certainly very closely related to the Indian peninsula. In climate, too, and in the flora and fauna, the northern part of the island is strikingly Indian; the same may be said of the inhabitants. On the other hand, southern and central Ceylon has a climate of its own and the people as well as the plants and animals are quite different.

Peradeniya is situated in the center of Ceylon about seventy miles Try rail from Colombo, the capital of the island. There is no town here, but only a post-office and a few scattered huts. The city of Kandy, however, is only three miles distant by rail or wagon road.

In going from Colombo to Peradeniya the trains are slow, but the traveler does not complain. Indeed, he would wish his journey lengthened, for the trip affords a four-hour introduction to tropical scenery which is nowhere surpassed. Any one can enjoy the journey whether interested in the world of nature or in his fellow man. There are broad lowlands with cocoanut trees and fields of rice, alternating with patches of deep jungle in which the natives have cleared bits of ground and built their huts. In the higher altitudes tea fields and chocolate plantations are the rule. But here also are stretches of uncleared forest with trees of all heights and sizes, frequently some with handsome

PSM V73 D198 Peradeniya gardens of ceylon.png

Fig. 1. View in the Pandanus Quarter of the Peradeniya Gardens, Ceylon, Note the curious prop roots of these trees. From a photograph by the author.

red or violet colored flowers standing out boldly amid a mass of dark green.

The garden at Peradeniya is only one of a number on the island. It is, however, the largest and most important. Here are the offices of the director of the gardens, whose duties correspond to those of a government secretary of agriculture. Other gardens and experiment stations, five in number, are established in parts of the island where differences in climate furnish altered conditions for plant life.

The Peradeniya garden is in the wet zone, or area of natural rain forest, at an altitude of 1,600 feet above the sea. With an annual precipitation of about 90 inches and a mean temperature of 75° Fahrenheit there are furnished the necessary conditions for luxuriant plant growth. A "dry season," extending through February, March and April, limits the growth of air plants hanging from trees, so that in this respect Peradeniya is not so interesting as Buitenzorg, in Java. The "dry season" is, however, not long enough to interfere with the growth of most plants and nearly all of the trees retain their leaves through this period. It is quite otherwise in the arid districts of northern Ceylon, where a monsoon forest with a considerable number of deciduous trees is the natural plant formation. Peradeniya, though rather too cool for cocoanuts or Para rubber, has a climate well suited to Castilloa rubber and to tea and chocolate, while palms of nearly all kinds thrive to perfection.

The garden was not originally laid out according to any system of plant classification, but was rather a beautiful park in which trees were planted for landscape effect. Now, however, the director,[2] is developing the garden according to systematic plans and making definite groups of plant families. Thus there are at present well-arranged plots devoted to palms, others to screw pines, others to cycads. It will necessarily be many years before the new plan can be fully carried out, for most of the plants in a tropical garden are trees. Indeed, the herbaceous garden forms but a small part of the whole.

Here, as in any first-class garden of the tropics, much is very new and strange to the botanist from temperate climes. Palms, screwpines, giant bamboos, orchids and tree ferns, which he has known hitherto only from books or from the puny specimens of the plant house, become the commonplaces of every-day life. The sight of trees of the Composite family, Verbena family and many other groups represented at home only by herbs opens the eyes to some of the real wonders of tropical plant life. An interesting example is that of the "potato tree" belonging to the nightshade family. It does not produce potatoes, but its flower resembles that of a potato very much enlarged. At home we think of the nightshade family including only herbs and vines, but in the tropics it includes trees as large as our ordinary shade trees, such as elm and maple.

Nearly every kind of plant will grow at Peradeniya; tropical and sub-tropical plants very well indeed; temperate plants for the most part indifferently well. The latter are, however, taken care of at the mountain garden at Hakgala where the higher altitude (5,500 feet) gives them a climate resembling that of western Washington and Oregon. The comparative coolness of tropical highlands is well illustrated by Nuwara Elliya, a resort near Hakgala, where in the hotels a grate fire is lighted nearly every evening throughout the year.

PSM V73 D200 Map of ceylon 1907.png

Fig. 2. Map of Ceylon. Peradeniya, not shown on the map, is about three miles east of Kandy in the central part of the island. The figures indicate annual rainfall as follows: 1, Under 50 in.; 2, 50 to 75 in.; 3, 75 to 100 in.; 4, 100 to 150 in.; 5, 150 to 200 in.; 6, 200 in. or more.

While an attempt is made to grow in the gardens all of the plants which are native to Ceylon, a great many plants from other parts of the world are also to be seen there. Indeed, the wealth of tropical beauty is here assembled. The flame tree of Madagascar, named from the brilliant color of the flowers, is a wondrous sight in March and April, the whole tree being a mass of red which hides the dark-green foliage. From India there is a tree, Saraca indica, with a profusion of brilliant orange-yellow flowers; and from tropical America various trees of the genus Brownea, especially interesting because of the graceful clusters of pendant young leaves. The leaves droop when young and tender, thus presenting very little surface for injury by the overhead sun. As they grow older a horizontal position is assumed and the red color is lost. It is supposed that the red coloring matter acts as a screen which protects the living substance of the young leaves just as the red glass in a photographer's dark-room window protects the sensitive plates from injury by light.

Among the most interesting plants are the bamboos, of which many different kinds are cultivated, some native, others imported from peninsular India or from other parts of Asia. Some interesting studies have been made at the gardens on the rate of growth of bamboo stems. These spring up almost as if by magic. To measure the growth from day to day no expensive auxanometer is needed, but only a tape measure and a coolie to climb an adjacent tree with the end of the tape. A day's growth is measured not in millimeters but in feet or inches. Bamboo stems are hollow, as are most grasses—for bamboos are but grasses—and are wonderfully strong considering the weight and the amount of material in them. Indeed, the principle of the hollow cylinder so well known to engineers was long understood by the Asiatics, who use bamboos for building purposes.

Of economic plants in the garden there seems almost no end. The balmy breezes of Ceylon may v/ell be spice-laden. Ceylon cinnamon is known the world over. The various peppers, as black pepper, long pepper, betel pepper, are woody climbers. A handsome grove of nutmeg trees is planted near the entrance—the trees about seventy years old. On the ground under the trees may be found the seeds, i. e., the nutmegs, and around them a covering, the aril of the botanist, which forms the spice known as mace. Clove trees may be seen also; it is the young flower buds of the tree which are dried to make the cloves of commerce. In the garden one may see the plants which furnish vanilla, citronella oil, tea, indigo, pineapple, ramie, sisal hemp and sago. Almost countless trees there are of economic importance. A few may be named, as those which furnish coffee, chocolate, cola, cocoanut, Brazil nut, camphor, rubber, gamboge and other tropical products.

In speaking of economic plants mention must be made of the experiment station which is really a part of the garden, although situated across the river. As a matter of fact nearly all the world lies across the river from the Peradeniya gardens, as these are situated in a bend of the stream which flows first north, then west, then south around the gardens. The experiment station was formerly a private estate bought by the gardens at a low price because it had been allowed to run down and the chocolate trees nearly all become diseased. Scientific methods of tending and care have been introduced and a model plantation developed. Here experiments are made with new agricultural crops and with new methods of treatment. The different species of trees furnishing rubber are being tried as well as improved varieties

PSM V73 D202 Bamboos along the river in the peradeniya garden.png

Fig. 3. Bamboos along the River in the Peradenya Gardens. In the clearing across the stream is a small rice field. From a photograph by the author.

of chocolate, cardomoms and other crops. Throughout Ceylon there is much general interest in scientific agriculture and the controller of the experiment station has the encouragement and moral support of the thinking population, both European and native. The daily newspapers at Colombo also give much attention to such matters and assume a sympathetic attitude toward government scientific work, in refreshing contrast to many of the newspapers in this country.

An attractive plot at Peradeniya is the Kitchen Garden, in which are assembled such "vegetables" as will grow in that hot, moist climate. Many of our common vegetables do well and can be had at all seasons, for example, beans, beets, peas, celery, lettuce and cress. Potatoes are generally small and poor. Sweet corn will grow in Ceylon, but has not thus far come into use. Of tropical vegetables various "yams" are much used, particularly by the natives. The word "yam" is applied to tubers and thickened roots of many different species of plants. Eggplants, different from ours in the temperate zone, are cultivated, also certain plants used, for "greens." Breadfruit trees produce the large heavy fruits of that name, but these would properly be classified among vegetables. Breadfruit is not much used by the British in Ceylon, who, in fact, eat chiefly the same things that they are accustomed to eat at home on their own tight little island.

Thus far we have been considering the attractions of the Peradeniya gardens to the casual visitor. To the botanist they are even more interesting. Every facility is offered by the director of the gardens for investigation by visiting men of science. There is a good herbarium in charge of competent curators and a working library of botanical books and periodicals. Good laboratory facilities are also offered. Although the laboratory for visitors is not fully equipped with physiological apparatus, there are the usual necessaries and it is easy to obtain all ordinary supplies at Kandy or Colombo. Native joiners, tinsmiths and metal-workers can be secured at very low rates to make articles needed. Photographic materials may be obtained at Kandy, only three miles away, and skilled photographers may be engaged to develop negatives or do other photographic work such as making lantern slides.

Opportunities for securing museum material are excellent. Collections of tropical woods properly named are prepared to order by dealers in Kandy. Plant material may be collected from the garden and preserved in formaldehyde or alcohol. Herbarium specimens from the garden can be collected and dried, but the botanist will need to remember that nothing short of the most thorough drying will suffice. It will also be necessary to use a liberal amount of naphthalene scattered through the dry specimens at all times. A native plant collector is detailed by the director of the gardens to assist visiting botanists in getting material from either the garden or the jungle. This man is well acquainted with nearly all of the species in the garden or growing in the vicinity and can usually tell the scientific name offhand, although sometimes he needs to refer to the herbarium. At the laboratory native assistants are provided who clean up apparatus and glassware and make themselves generally useful.

One of the most interesting things about Ceylon is the way in

PSM V73 D204 Brownea and a talipot palm on the right ceylon.png

Fig. 4. Brownea, a Tree with Young Leaves hanging limp at the Ends of the Branches. At the right a Talipot palm in blossom. From a photograph by the author.

which the jungle comes to the very door of civilization. In our own country we do not find "backwoods" close to cities and towns, but must travel a long way from Boston or New York to find the primeval forest. Ceylon, however, like other tropical countries, furnishes examples of jungle in close proximity to the large towns. Indeed, everywhere throughout the island the forest is easily reached. There is no half-way land in Ceylon. That which is needed for roads, gardens or fields is well cared for; other land grows up quickly to jungle. Old fields, abandoned a few years, soon become a dense thicket and later a forest. This is well seen at Anuradhapura, one of the ruined cities in the north central part of the island. Here, the government archeologists, as they find various parts of buildings such as columns and arches, set them up in place; but sometimes they neglect to clear out the trees for a sufficient distance and their "finds" once more become overturned by growing roots or the stems of gigantic climbers.

So, where jungle is the rule, and clearings have to be protected, it is natural that the botanical gardens should have a patch of jungle. This is situated in the experiment station grounds, but easily reached by the visitor. Here may be seen the native trees of the region in their natural condition and the visitor may get some idea of tropical luxuriance in the large number of species present on even a small tract of ground. It must be said, however, that a visit to this bit of jungle would be, to many visitors, a disappointment, for it is not filled with air plants hanging from the trees nor rendered impenetrable by interlacing stems of climbing plants. It is, however, much easier to travel through than the jungles at sea level in districts of great heat and humidity.

The botanist who is interested in ecology—the relation of the plant to its environment—is often on the lookout for field and roadside weeds. In temperate regions, particularly in the western United States, roadside weeds make a constant and striking feature of the landscape. This is not the case, as a rule, in the tropics. Indeed, there are not only rather few weeds, but few flowering herbs of any kind. The

PSM V73 D205 Screw pine or monocotyledon of genus pandanus.png

Fig. 5. A "Screw Pine"; not a pine at all, but a monocotyledon of the genus Pandanus. From a photograph by the author.

tropics are a region of big things and the herbaceous plants make little impression on the visitor. At the Peradeniya garden, the writer noted a small area of perhaps half an acre that had been neglected for a time. Here, although there were many tree seedlings started, there was a fairly good patch of weeds—enough to make a lonely American feel quite at home. These weeds were chiefly Lantanas and some of our American composites, particularly the fleabane Erigeron and also Conyza.

It would be difficult to find elsewhere in the world an area the size of Ceylon, or even much larger, with so many different vegetation regions. The differences in these regions are brought about largely by

PSM V73 D206 Lab and herbarium of the garden in ceylon.png

Fig. 6. Laboratory and Herbarium. At the far right is the office of the director. From a photograph by the author.

the winds which determine the distribution of rainfall and by altitude with consequent temperature changes. The wet weather comes with the rains from two different directions. The northeast monsoon commences in October and brings heavy rains throughout the higher parts of the island and in the lowland country of the northeast. A series of rains continues through November and December, with a rather light rainfall during January, February and March. In April the wind changes to southwest and there is more rain, with June especially wet. From then until October the rainfall is again lighter. It will be seen then, that in the highlands it is always moist, but that there are certain districts which have a rather pronounced dry season. The driest parts of the island are in the north and the south or northwest and south-east, in other words, in those parts placed as outlying districts at right angles to the directions of both monsoons.

The climate at Peradeniya is such that the botanist can live there in comfort and work regularly. It is a good place to begin the study of tropical plant life, as it is not extreme in either rainfall or temperature. From Peradeniya it is easy to reach the various parts of the island with their remarkably different floras. Traveling is not expensive and as English is the regular commercial language it is easy to get around.

Although the different plant formations of Ceylon are almost without number, yet a rough classification may be made as follows: (1) lowland evergreen rain forest; (2) upland evergreen rain forest; (3)

PSM V73 D207 Government house near the garden entrance.png

Fig. 7. Government Rest House near the Entrance to the Garden. photograph by the author.

From a mountain evergreen rain forest; (4) monsoon forest (half deciduous). There is no plain or prairie of any extent. Our first named formation is in the southwestern part of the island extending from Galle to Colombo and inland for twenty to fifty miles. Peradeniya is situated in the upland evergreen rain forest. Nuwara Elliya and Hakgala (about 6,000 feet altitude) may be taken as examples of our third region. These points are easily reached from Peradeniya by rail, the trip taking about half a day. Above these points the mountains rise 2,000 or 3,000 feet higher, but there is no true alpine vegetation anywhere in Ceylon. At Nuwara Elliya the general aspect of vegetation is much like that of temperate America or Europe. The trees are much

PSM V73 D208 Part of the garden laid out to please european tourists.png

Fig. 8. A portion of the Garden, with formal beds and wide expanse of lawn arranged to please European tourists. From a photograph by Macmillan kindly furnished by the director.

stouter than those of lower altitudes and not so tall. In these mountain highlands in addition to forest there is a certain amount of "open country," the patanas. These are expanses of grassland on hillsides and rolling ground. The monsoon forest occurs in the drier regions of the island in the northwest and southeast. Here there are no very tall trees as compared with those of the rain forest and many of them are short and scrubby—very much branched after the manner of dry country plants the world over. A considerable number are deciduous, losing their leaves in the hotter and drier months of spring to put them on again in the period of the monsoon or rain-bearing winds.

In the hot, moist lowlands of the southwest part of the island a typical strand flora may be seen. There are mangrove swamps and thickets of Nipa palm. It is in such very hot districts that rubber is grown and the cocoanut flourishes also. The drier regions have usually what would be a fair allowance of rain if in the temperate zone, but the tropical heat causes such rapid evaporation that the fifty inches of annual rainfall at Anuradhapura is not sufficient to grow crops without irrigation. Here then is a truly arid district. Farther north at Jaffna it is still drier, so that almost desert conditions prevail at least for a part of the year. As these dry regions can be visited easily at all times of year they make a very attractive feature of the island from the standpoint of the botanist. They are especially interesting to the American student familiar with the arid conditions of the west. In America all arid lands are practically treeless, but in Ceylon the forest is the natural plant formation even in dry areas.

With all of the different floras to be seen in the various parts of the island a botanist may get a good idea of the tropical world in a short time and with slight expense. The director of the gardens and his staff are anxious to have scientific visitors, not only botanists, but zoologists and geologists as well. Two rooms at the government Rest House (a kind of hotel) are reserved for scientific visitors and no charge is made for lodging, although, of course, table board must be paid for. The cost of living will be found to be not more than in other tropical countries with fewer advantages for study.

Ceylon has never attracted a great number of students, but a considerable amount of valuable work has been done there. Haeckel certainly obtained many of his philosophical ideas of the plant and animal worlds during his visit to the island. Modern science and philosophy owe much to the influence of Ceylon on his writings. But Haeckel's zoological collections were also valuable, and the collections of others at later times have added much to the world's store of knowledge in regard to tropical life. On the side of botany probably the name which is oftenest associated with Ceylon is that of the late H. Marshall Ward, who as a young man spent two years on the island studying the coffee disease. Although he worked out the etiology of the disease and the life history of the parasite, he was unable to devise a method of prevention. Henry Trimen, who was director of the gardens at Peradeniya for sixteen years, published the "Flora of Ceylon," which was completed by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1900, after the death of Trimen. It is interesting to note that Hooker had himself collected plants in Ceylon fifty-three years before. Of recent publications the work of Mr. Willis, the director, on a curious family of plants, the Podostomaceæ,

PSM V73 D209 Giant bamboos.png

Fig. 9. Giant Bamboos. Photograph by Macmillan kindly furnished by the director.

is especially noteworthy. An exhaustive study of the trees of the ebony genus has been made by Mr. Herbert Wright. Mr. E. H. Lock has also done some remarkably good work in plant-breeding experiments which deserve special mention. Various students have worked on minor problems, with results which have been published in both European and American journals. In June, 1.901, there was begun the publication of the Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya.[3] This publication is issued at irregular intervals at a nominal price. It contains contributions from the director and other members of the scientific staff of the gardens.

The West Indies and the Philippines will, no doubt, attract more students of botany from America than will Ceylon, but in a few years no one will claim to be a trained botanist unless he has had the advantages of study in some tropical laboratory. There is no tropical land which offers better opportunity than Ceylon for botanical study. Nor can one find any tropical country with a more intelligent and progressive population, finer cities or more beautiful scenery.

One will naturally make comparisons between botanical opportunity at Peradeniya and at Buitenzorg,[4] in Java. It may be said that the establishment at Buitenzorg is much older and better provided with funds, but that Peradeniya is a more comfortable place to live, that traveling is much less complicated and communication more easy because of the use of English by the natives. In Java one must learn Malay in order to communicate with servants. On account of the very moist climate, Buitenzorg presents a more luxuriant vegetation, but this very great moisture makes work harder, and in the afternoons it is practically impossible to do any kind of study in the garden on account of rain. To many people the large number of visitors in the Buitenzorg gardens seems a detriment. The place is too much "civilized." At Peradeniya, on the other hand, the number of casual visitors is rather small, and they do not embarrass the student by their presence or their questions. It will be seen that it is impossible to say which of the two places will be better for the student. Something depends on the kind of work he wishes to do and very much depends on his own temperament. In fact, both gardens should be visited, and the length of time spent in each be determined by conditions as they arise.

  1. Haeckel, "India and Ceylon," Ch. VI.
  2. John C. Willis, M.A. (Camb.), FL.S.
  3. Students interested in knowing more concerning the opportunities for research at Peradeniya should consult the first number of the Annals in which these opportunities are fully set forth. An excellent account of the island of Ceylon with a statement of its resources is given in the "World's Fair Handbook of Ceylon," prepared for the St. Louis Exposition.
  4. See an article by the present writer in this magazine for November, 1905.