Look at the trees

Saturday, 29 September 2012 02:38 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D. C. Ranatunga

Each time we visit the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, we always look for flowers.  I remember whenever we went we used to make a bee-line to the Orchid House where the blooms were a treat. And they still are.

We hardly took an interest in studying or admiring trees.  True, we saw huge trees and occasionally had a good look at them. For instance, we could not miss the well grown bamboo groves which adorn the banks of the Mahaweli which flows virtually right around the Gardens.

Having listened to a talk by Dr. Wijesundera, Director-General of the National Botanic Gardens a few weeks back, I was determined to concentrate on trees during the next visit to the Gardens. Having got an opportunity to go there last week, I did. This time I had a close look not only at the huge trees spread across the Gardens but also at the little information given at the foot of some of them.

The giant bamboo, for example, had been introduced to the Gardens in 1858. Burma – now Myanmar – was the country of origin. The largest known bamboo, reaches a height of about 30 metres while the base measures about 20-25 cm. The young shoots grow at the rate of around 25-30 cm a day.  Within two to three months, they reach the maximum height. Most of what is seen along the riverbank is the ‘building bamboo’ from Java.

There are around 200 species of bamboo ranging from stiff reeds to giant species. Many are the uses of bamboo. Mainly used for building purposes and making rafts, it is in used as plant pots and even to transport water from one point to the other. While bamboos are used for musical instruments, toys and vases, the young shoots of certain species are cooked and eaten.

Just like bamboos, there are approximately 200 species of palm most of which can be seen in the Gardens. The palmyrah palm avenue dates back to 1887. It is the oldest of three palm avenues in the Gardens. While the palmyrah palm originates in Africa, the cabbage palm brought from Panama can be seen on the cabbage palm avenue created in 1905. Palms from Cuba form the royal palm avenue. Original palms have been replaced in the avenues.

A fine specimen of the talipot palm can be seen near the lake. Said to be the largest of all palms, the talipot grows to a height of 60-80 feet with a straight cylindrical truck three to four feet in diameter. The large fanlike leaves are used for writing (olas) and as umbrellas and sunshades.  

The legend at the bottom of the palm says that at the age of 30-40 years, it produces an enormous pyramidal creamy white inflorescence 25-20 feet in height upon the summit of the stem and when the fruit is ripens, the plant dies.

A beautiful specimen of jak exists in the Gardens with a legend referring to the uses of jak. While the origin of jak is uncertain, it is possibly a South Indian product, Botanically, the jak is classified as a multiple fruit consisting of a common receptacle containing a large number of fruits. Although it’s a common product for us, the jak fruit attracts visitors from temperate climates.

The row of well grown Java almond trees is a fascinating sight. The huge roots spread out in all directions are virtual hide-outs for anyone wanting to play hide and seek. In fact a security guy told us that they are popular places for young couples to cuddle.  “I have a time chasing them away. After all visitors to the Gardens are a mixed lot from children to the elderly,” he said.

Memorial trees

It is customary for distinguished visitors at very high levels to be invited to plant a commemorative tree. Generally it’s the royalty, heads of state and other selected VIPs who are given this privilege. The oldest of the ‘memorial trees’, as they are called, was a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi planted by King Edward VII in 1875. The second is an ironwood tree planted by the Czar of Russia in 1891.

“We continue the tradition started during the colonial era when high level visitors were not so frequent. Today it’s totally different. With so many state guests visiting the country and the gardens being a very popular place for them to visit, it’s becoming an extremely difficult task to draw the line as to who should be invited,” says Dr. Wijesundera.

A cannon ball tree planted by King George V and Queen Mary (1901), a pink tecoma planted by Mrs. F. A. Stockdale, wife of the then Director of Agriculture (the Gardens then came under the Department) to commemorate the end of World Aar I (1919), a ‘munamal’ tree planted by the Prince of Wales (1922), and the pride of Burma planted by the King of Belgium are among the memorial trees planted during the early part of the 20th century.

Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake planted a tamarind tree to mark the gaining of Independence on 4 February 1948.

This is just a glimpse of what one can see at the Gardens. Take a good look at the tress when you visit next time. And don’t forget to spot the bats – you can’t miss them.