A famous botanist once declared that Sri Lanka is simply one big botanical garden, nurtured by Nature itself. Yet when the British colonials arrived in Sri Lanka in the 19th century, they were determined to establish more gardens within this garden – man-made botanical gardens cloned from the mother Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England.
In 1821 on the site of a pleasure garden first created in about 1371 for the King of Kandy. The British established the gracious Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya. Another garden was set up in the hill country, established in 1861 at Hakgala south of Nuwara Eliya. And in 1876, yet another garden was established, this time in the lowlands at Henarathgoda, the Gampaha Botanic Gardens, designated for the trial planting of the country’s first Rubber trees. Other private gardens such as the famous Lunuganga and “Brief”, designed by world-renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa and his brother landscape artist Bevis Bawa, bring to life the paradisiacal charm that is refreshingly Sri Lanka’s.
Sri Lanka’s botanical gardens are a showcase of the country’s botanical treasures and are botanical gems deserving the same admiration and wonder as the country’s famed sapphires and emeralds.
As Sri Lanka’s largest garden – an elegant and spacious 147-acres (60-hectares) – plenty of time is needed to stroll Peradeniya’s imposing Avenue of Royal Palms.
There are some 4,000 different species of plants at Peradeniya Gardens. The 10,000 or so trees, which are the stars, are mature, lofty giants, many of them tropical timber trees. Highlights of the collection include the Giant Bamboo of Burma, capable of growing to 40 meters’ height (130 feet), with a 25-centimetre (10-inch) stem diameter. And it can grow by a rapid 30 centimeters a day (12 inches).
Absolutely sensational is the century-old giant Javan fig tree, its tentacle-like roots spread across the enormous area of about 1,800 square meters (19,375 square feet), a massive central trunk beneath the tree’s vast canopy ‘umbrella’.
The Cannonball tree is also intriguing, with its cannonball-like fruit hanging off the trunk and large open, waxy pink-white flowers. So is the Double Coconut Palm, one of 200 types of palms displayed at Peradeniya – originating from the Seychelles, this tree produces the largest seed known. Its fruits take five years to mature.
The gardens showcase all of Sri Lanka’s flora and representative species from around the tropical world. Luminaries as varied as Queen Elizabeth II , Marshal Tito and Yuri Gugarin have planted trees to mark their visits to the garden.
The Haggala gardens, about 27 hectares (67 acres) just 10 kilometers outside Nuwara Eliya, are quite different. They are best known for their gorgeous display of roses and tree ferns, which grow so well in this chilly zone 1,680 meters up (5,511 feet) and shadowed by the 457-metre tall (1,500-foot) Haggala peak. Bordering on closed nature reserve land, Haggala is also a good place to spot iconic wildlife like the Bear Monkey and the Blue Magpie.
Haggala was the site where tea was first cultivated in Sri Lanka. The Garden’s plantation of roses, shrubs, fern, camphor, eucalyptus and montane woodlands make it one of the world’s most beautiful naturally landscaped gardens. The best time to visit would be from mid March to end April when the gardens put up its’ best display of vibrant annual flowers, roses and orchids.
Lunuganga and “Brief”
The seductive creations of the internationally renowned Bawa brothers of Sri Lanka, architect Geoffrey (at Lunuganga, Bentota, 60 kilometres/37 miles south of Colombo), and landscape artist Bevis (at Brief, close to Kalawila village and not far from Lunuganga) are gardens that are lush and evocative of the Garden of Eden.
Bevis Bawa crafted Brief in the 1920s from a patch of rubber plantation. It is a romantic, European-style garden despite the abundance of native tropical Sri Lankan vegetation. Full of follies, ponds and pavilions, Brief is an alluring oasis of tranquility. Every corner you turn reveals unsuspected beauty. Sunbirds flit among the lovingly arranged shrubs, formal lawns and mysterious thickets of bamboo. This is a garden of great charm.
At Gampaha, just 27 kilometers (17 miles) inland and northeast of Colombo, the lowland Henarathgoda Botanic Gardens fondly display the ruins of Sri Lanka’s first rubber tree, planted in 1876. The country’s rubber industry was the fruit of seeds originally smuggled out of the tree’s native Brazil, in bales of cotton on a dugout boat running the rivers, it is said. Although the tree was reduced to a mere ring of wood on the ground by a huge storm, there is something quite moving about its continued presence in these historic gardens.
The Gampaha gardens also showcase about 1,500 types of other plants. Here is the place to view the Kithul palm that supplies Sri Lanka’s rich brown raw sugar, jaggery, and alcoholic toddy. Tall Mahogany and Satinwood trees abound, as well as Figs and even some Eucalypts. The orchid house is also worth a visit to marvel at the variety of colours and forms that these exquisite flowers can take, from pink to blue, brown and green.