How empire and disaster shaped Sri Lanka’s botanical gardens
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Storms, civil war and a tsunami cannot dim the appeal of botanical gardens. Nor can their colonial past. I have just been verifying this heartening truth by a targeted visit to Sri Lanka, punctuated by offering marigolds and a lilac-blue water lily before a tooth supposed to have belonged to Buddha.
Sri Lanka now has five botanical gardens and five more are being planned. Those who scorn botanic gardens in the former British empire as if they are items of obsolete colonialism should consider Sri Lanka’s response and then recant. In 2004 that horrendous tsunami shattered lives and property on the island’s south coast. In 2006 planning began for a memorial, a new botanical garden on an expanse of ruined coastal scrub, sand and prickly weeds. In November 2013 it opened to visitors, the Mirijjawila Botanic Garden east of Galle, near Mattala international airport. Already, 180 acres of an intended 300 have been planted in a master plan. London’s 2012 Olympic Park seems a timid sort of legacy when seen from Sri Lanka’s south coast.
The new garden lies in a dry zone, selected because it needs very different plants to those in Sri Lanka’s other botanical gardens. The ground is as flat as an unrolled pancake from the British past. Long lines of red salvia in the first flower beds give no impression of the diversity which is then on view elsewhere. Twenty-six avenues of carefully chosen trees radiate outwards across a maturing master design. Cassia trees are growing apace and so are the varied types of palm. In March big beds of multicoloured bougainvilleas will be at their spectacular best. Only 10 years ago this ground was a sea-ravaged wasteland. A huge formal parterre is the centrepiece and there is even a hungry crocodile in the central lake. At Kew, “best practice” would have peacefully put it to sleep on orders from health and safety.
This huge new botanical garden is not prickly about its predecessors, all four of which are a legacy of the British empire. Sri Lanka’s varied zones of climate are irresistible to botanists and agronomists, beginning with the great Joseph Banks in 1810. He founded a new “Kew gardens” on an offshore site but it soon ended up at mild and mountainous Peradeniya, four miles from Kandy, an unmissable site for Buddhist pilgrims and fellow-travelling tourists.
In Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth I walked barefoot among the Sunday morning crowds and offered my plate of flowers in front of the gold-cased tooth, venerated as Buddha’s own. On Sri Lanka, its history goes back almost 1,000 years having been an object of war and diplomacy since its origins. To the beat of drums and blowing of horns I returned to the local railway, a route from downtown Kandy to Peradeniya’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
In 1821, Banks’s second Kew was moved here and put under the direction of the remarkable Alexander Moon. Local kings had already had gardens of plants, but the British approach was different. Within three years, Moon published the first catalogue of “Ceylon plants”, 1,127 of them. Naming and listing were integral to the venture. Since 1821 the gardens have grown to an area of almost 150 acres, patterned by wide paths and areas of green grass. They are still in excellent shape.
Sri Lanka has 188 species of wild orchid, more than half of which flourish around Kandy itself. A tidy small orchid house shows some of the best. Once again there are beds of red Salvia coccinea at the entrance but there are also scarlet poinsettias, our Christmas pot plants, grown in the open air. Down the main Broad Walk plants, labelled “Prickly Bush” and “Blue Sky” are bedded out beneath fine evergreen trees. The high points of the flower garden are the big pergolas and wire arches. They are covered by exotic climbers with names like Beaumontia and Saritaea beyond curtains of lilac-blue petraea. None of these lovely plants could be grown in this way in Britain.
The trees are magnificent, not only those which have survived the end of British rule. Parts of the garden read like an honorific time warp. A big Ceylon ironwood tree was planted by Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, on his accession in 1894. Revealingly, his action is commemorated on a new plaque, installed by post-communist Russia’s ambassador in 2011. Prince Albert of Belgium’s name lives on beneath the big Amherstia which he planted. It gleams with bunches of scarlet flowers, hanging like giant lobsters’ claws. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, known as Mrs Bandaranaike, planted a camphor tree in 1972 as the first female prime minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, but it has not grown much since. The Yellow Trumpet tree by the orchid house is another matter. Now more than 40ft high, it was planted in 1981 by Crown Prince Akihito of Japan and his Crown Princess. Its yellow flowers fall profusely on to the paths beneath. Nearby, our Queen Elizabeth planted a Sorrowless tree, also in 1981, but it is puny by comparison.
Beneath a superb long avenue of royal palms, planted in 1950, ladies in glittering saris were being snapped by a young man whose white teeth glittered behind the camera. His T-shirt announced: “It Is About To Get Awesome.” As I boarded the train to Colombo, it did.
Commuting victims of British train companies are in perfect training for this journey of more than three hours. The carriages look like relics of Hemingway’s train trips across 1930s Spain. As on midweek early trains into London, standing customers keep each other upright with no room to lurch around.
The train ride is a cross between a community concert and Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for a railway gone wild. How happily would he discover that there are only two classes, second and third, first being neither democratic nor socialist. As on his dream line, the sexes are supposed to self-segregate, but on my Jeremy of a postcolonial train, they mingled in gleeful disregard, fired up by attendance at a Tamil wedding in the town. “Songs of indecency”, bilinguals assured me, were being sung with gusto by each man who held the carriage floor. “The Red Flag” was not among them, but in their spangly saris the women laughed and clapped nonetheless, “vitalising the bride”, as was explained to me. We rocked, we rolled and even the immobilised ticket collector enjoyed my contribution, a rendering, by invitation, of a classic from the English fox-hunting field. It was greeted with showers of marigold petals and shrieks when we rattled through the pitch-dark tunnels.
Here is my considered proposal. Give Corbyn a collector’s hat and a ginger-khaki uniform and pack him off to serve a train line on which policing socialism can still be fun. He will have to put up with hunting songs, but he will love the price of the tickets. From Kandy to Colombo, third class, 100km costs 70p. Before you struggle to “window 4” on Colombo’s Fort station, be sure you can stand for three hours, sing in a crowd and then enjoy a botanic garden proud to call itself “royal” at the end of the line.
Photographs: bridgemanimages.com; Dry Zone Botanic Gardens, Mirijjawila; Bill Draker
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