1986, Sarah Rutherford (Fraser), Study Tour Sri Lanka, Palms

Study trip to Sri Lanka – July 1986

By Sarah Rutherford

The main aims of this trip were to study members of the family Palmae, and to help with the verification of the Palm collection at the major Botanic Garden in Sri Lanka: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya. Also to enhance already strong links between R.B.G. Kew and R.B.G. Peradeniya.

My original brief was to spend three weeks working at the Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya, collecting herbarium specimens from their Palm Collection to be verified at R.B.G. Kew. After this I had intended to spend one week’s leave visiting other places on the island. However, it turned out that I spent four weeks on attachment to the Botanic Gardens, making several official trips to different parts of the country organised by the Gardens Superintendent, Mr. Sumithraarachchi. These were interspersed between my main work of collecting Palms from the Gardens.

The R.B.G. Peradeniya were established in 1822, and thus have a well established organisation and a long history. They are 147 acres in extent, and have approximately 200 staff to organise and maintain them. The National Herbarium, a colonial style building with over 50,000 herbarium sheets, lies within the Gardens; also a Seed Bank and Micropropagation Unit. The altitude is at about 1 ,550 feet, and the situation is about 10 degrees above the equator. Thus the climate is tropical, but not too hot, with a monsoon season in July and August.

I spent the majority of my time at the gardens in the Palmetum, where most of the Palms are situated; it is a pleasant, shady area which reveals the diversity of Palm form admirably. Mr Sumithraarachchi allowed me three of his staff to help with specimen collection: one of the Curators, with a good botanical knowledge, and two tree climbers who helped with retrieval and preparation of the specimens. Unfortunately, my time at the Gardens coincided with Monsoon Season in Kandy (the nearest town to Peradeniya), so on some days rain prevented any collections being made. However this was not too much of an obstacle. In the rest of the country the weather seemed to be hot and sunny. On one day we collected from 30 different species, which was rather a record! Our usual total was around 15 to 20 per day.

The Herbarium staff helped in preparing the specimens for packing and transportation, which saved much-needed time. Warning: I had to buy eight gallons of meths in order to douse all the specimens for preservation, which I had not budgeted for in my spending money and cost £30 Sterling (refunded by R.B.G. Kew). Moral: Ensure you have enough money for unforeseen items such as this!

I made four separate trips out of the Gardens, each time accompanied by members of the administration staff of the Gardens. It was helpful to be with local people, both to interpret and point out items of interest along the way which otherwise might have been ignored. These trips were much easier than me travelling on my own, as Gardens transport was provided for each one. Travelling on the island one covers relatively short distances, but they seem to take quite a time, especially by public transport. Colombo to Kandy is 70 miles but takes three hours to cover the distance.

My visits consisted of two one-day trips, one two-day, and one five-day.

As the majority of my stay was in one place, I was fortunate to base my accommodation with a Sri Lankan family recommended by Laura Ponsonby. Lloyd and Ranee Perera were kind and helpful and provided excellent accommodation at a reasonable price. I think that they would be willing to look after anyone from Kew visiting Kandy in future.

When out on visits I stayed at hotels and rest houses. These were all found for rne by Gardens staff, who usually managed to get a reduction in price for me even though I was a “tourist”. Everywhere I stayed was always clean and the service good. Meals often consisted of rice and curry in one form or another, which is jolly tasty, but hell if you don’t like curry (I do!).

I used public buses to travel from the Perera’s to the Gardens. These are frequent but rather noisy and rickety. Private buses were the same fare, but usually full to bursting point.

During my stay the trouble centred around Tamils in the north and east of the island rumbled on. I never encountered any trouble personally (apart from seeing the gaping hole blown in the Post Office in Colombo some months before), and it seemed that as long as one avoided travelling to Jaffna, Trincomalee and the surrounding areas, life would remain peaceful.

I felt my trip to be very successful. Most of the Palms of the Gardens were collected, and a set retained at their National Herbarium for future reference. I gathered information and photographs useful for my Taxonomy Project and saw a good variety of the island’s flora and climatic zones. The staff of the Gardens, especially Mr. Sumithraarachchi, were always helpful and keen to ensure that I got the most out of my visit. I saw the diversity of Sri Lanka’s country. It ranges from the cool, moist hill country (temperatures at 0 degrees C are not unknown), to the hot, dry lowlands, with various intermediates. These include 50 square miles of hot, wet primary rainforest with lots of juicy leeches! I also saw some of the most important historic and religious sites on the island, which greatly aided my insight into Sri Lanka as a whole.

Visits made in Sri Lanka – S. Rutherford, July 1986

One Day Visits

Anuradhapura – Ancient city in ruins, centred around Sacred Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa) which is 2,500 years old. Original capital of Sri Lanka.

Gampaha Botanical Garden, Colombo – Small, rural garden, where the first Hevea braziliensis in Asia still survive.

Two Day Visits

Polonaruwa – Ruined palace and Buddhist Temples. Used as Capital after Anuradhapura abandoned.

Sigirya – ruined Palace built on a 600 ft. sheer rock in 11th century AD. Also water gardens from same date being excavated.

Five Day Visits

Horton Plains – Cool grassland and trees; misty, eerie place. Many plants allied to temperate, northern genera. Rhododendron zeylanicum abundant.

Hakgala Botanical Garden – One of highest altitude botanical gardens in the world. First Camellia sinensis in the country tried here and still survive today. Temperate, moist climate.

Diyaluma Falls – Waterfall tumbling down 600 ft. sheer granite.

Ratnapura – Gem capital of Sri Lanka. Most gems found around this town.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve – Reputedly the last remaining Primary Rainforest in Asia. An exciting piece of untouched vegetation, full of leeches, leopards and Rattans (Calamusspp.).

Galle – Galle Fort is an historical town on the southernmost coast which has signs of all its European colonisers still in evidence. The beaches and warm sea are idyllic!


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