The Mirijjawila Dry-zone Botanical Garden is the sixth and latest addition to the list of botanical gardens in Sri Lanka. The Pearl Crew decided to scout out this floral paradise.
It was not a crowded day at the Park. That could have been because we arrived during the latter part of one of the worst droughts this area had ever experienced. The neat and impressive garden entrance was almost deserted, and within a couple of minutes we had purchased the passes and arranged an observation car. Visitors have the option to stroll or take a chauffeured tour. We opted for the latter, which turned out to be a good call in the end. The auto-cart was driven by a very helpful park attendant who clarified the approximate time it would take to cover the whole area.
The groundwork for the first phase of this unique botanical garden commenced in 2006. It was opened to the Public in November 2013, after some seven years of nurturing. As you can imagine, water is the biggest challenge for the survival of vegetation in the dry zone. Rain is usually supplied by the two monsoons; the Northeast monsoon occurs from December to March, and the Southwest monsoon during June to October. During the inter-monsoonal periods, that sometimes culminate into harsh droughts, the park has to supply the minimum water requirements of its organic inhabitants.
Even the largest of trees are sensitive to the availability of water and foraging animals in this climate. It is remarkable however that trees here seem to have grown vigorously. Most plants, particularly dry-zone species, thrive under intense sunlight, provided water is available. Ample supplies of top soil had been imported for making this park, from the numerous development sites close-by. Thus, supplying the garden with the necessary water during the height of a persistent drought became the ultimate test of the success of this project.
The gigantic water tank in the garden stores up to 225,000 litres of water, drawn through a 2-km-long pipeline from the nearby Beragama Lake. They say ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, and we observed that this was indeed the case. The Hambanthota district was severely affected by the lack of rains. Time and time again we heard that rain was the only wish of the people in the area (curiously it started to rain just a few days after our visit, which brought a sigh of relief to us all back in Colombo).
To elaborate on the water sources within the park, there are three lakes within the garden (Kohombagas Wewa, Dematetta Wewa and Maliththangas Wewa). But only one had survived this drought. It is rather difficult to build canals in this region because the atmospheric absorption rate of water is too fast. As water is the most scarce resource in the dry zone, an appropriate technique of watering is the key to the survival of the vegetation. In response to this challenge, the park authorities have applied, and proven the success of, a “drip irrigation scheme” within the park.
Tank water is pumped via a network of pipes to each and every tree, shrub and hedge. The water is continuously supplied to the soil – drop by drop – through strategically placed valves and pipelines. The time table is fine-tuned daily according to the weather, and the plants thrive. The idea is to retain just enough moisture in the soil by means of water drops. This in fact saves a vast amount of water, which would otherwise quickly evaporate into the dry atmosphere, if watered in the conventional way. With changing weather patterns, this could prove to be the key to the survival of the dry-zone forests which are threatened with extinction if left unattended. In this arid climate, plants are traumatised if water is missed out for just a single day, and results in sever retardation in their growth. Three days without water would be fatal. This forces the caretakers to prioritise the water supply for sensitive plants, leaving the tough grasses to be nourished by the rainy season, as and when it arrives.
Most of the plants and trees here are of Sri Lankan and South Asian origin. But we did find species from other regions of the world as well. There is a separate area for floriculture where a lot of work is being done to propagate and prepare the plants required for the garden, and also to meet the horticultural needs of the various organisations in the area. Commercial orders are usually of massive scale, in thousands, and the garden supplies these plants at a nominal price. Dulan, a senior field supervisor and keen naturalist who joined us on our tour, told us that on average about 30% of the nursery’s products are used for the garden, while the rest are sold. Some of their major customers include the nearby Mattala Airport, Hambanthota Harbour and International Conference Hall.
Another remarkable feature of the garden are the avenues dedicated to different varieties of dry-zone trees, some of which are still growing. In years to come, the trees in these avenues will form canopies, and the visitors will then no longer need the shelter of umbrellas or vehicles to browse through the garden. Trees are planted according to their genus (kula), and includes various species of dry-zone foliage in their natural environment. This garden has been designed under the concept of a “Vidhimath Udyanaya” or a “planned garden”, and it is anticipated that the garden will be at its prime around 2024.
It is interesting to note that the initial preparation, landscaping and planting was done largely through manual labour. The standard size for a tree pit is 3’x3′ which is filled with nutrition rich top soil and manure, and the saplings come exclusively from the in house nurseries. Seeds are collected during field trips to dry zone forests where there is enough to spare, and samples and brought to be grown or propagated in the nurseries. When both internal and external requests are made for specific varieties, the officials are prepared to search for their seeds in the woods.
Up to 5000 varieties of trees and shrubs have been planted to date. The garden sits in an area which had once been a cotton plantation. Some of the cotton plants can still be seen, purposefully preserved as mementos from the past. It was difficult not to notice that the staff are proud of their achievements.
The Mirijjawila Dry-zone Botanical Garden is managed by the Department of National Botanic Gardens. Its primery objectives are to protect plants in the dry zone, dry-zone landscape improvement, promotion of the herbal industry, education and training on botany and floriculture, and promotion of eco-tourism. Coming to its uniqueness, the Mirijjawila dry-zone botanical garden is the first 100 percent locally-designed botanical garden in Sri Lanka, and the largest. Earning its distinction as the only dry-zone botanical garden, it is also the first botanical garden to be established for the last 150 years.
Lots of migrant and endemic birds are seen near the water tanks during the mornings and evenings. Some of the notable avifauna we spotted during our short circuit of the garden included a Pied-cuckoo, an Oriental Honey-buzzard, various water birds and parakeets. Deer and the Malabar Pied Hornbill can also been spotted here, according to Dulan. The botanical garden is protected from wild elephants that freely roam these areas, with a special fence.
The garden presently functions efficiently with the support of 66 manual workers and four officers, three of which are field supervisors like Dulan. Appointment of competent persons to the various sections of the park have been done in order to maximise their performance through responsibility, ownership and pride of achievement.
Among the many plant species that we came across, we noted down a few.
Massan (Ziziphus mauritiana) an Apple like fruit whose flowering and fruiting season is April – May, Daluk (Euphorbia anti quorum), Maliththan (Salvadora persica) commonly known as the Mustard Tree, Margosa (Azadirachta indica) of the mahogany family Meliaceae, Ehela (Cassia fistula) known as Indian laburnum, the golden shower tree from the Fabaceae family.
Kaneru (Nerium oleander) commonly known as Oealnder, Asoka (Joanesia asoca) known as the Indian willow, the iron tree (Lignam vita) originating from the Caribbean, Rukkanthana (Alastonia scholaris), Andara trees (Acacia cornier).
Viyeli Mana (scientific name to be ascertained), Musanda (Mussaenda Erythrophylla), Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra), Tabuchia rosia, Bakmee (Nauclea orientalis), Varaa (Asclepias eriocarpa) also known as Monarch milkweed.
Among the plants that are popularly known to be used in Ayurveda and indigenous medicine were Katukarandu (Barleria prionitis) also known as the porcupine flower, Moonamal (Mimusops elengi) or Spanish cherry in English, which is used for for dental medication.
Valmee (Glycyrrhiza glabra) used as a cough relief, Eth demata (Gmelina arborea) a component of Aristaya, Kothala Himbutu (Salacia prinoides, Salacia reticulata) used for diabetes and other ailments, white sandalwood (Santalum album), and Ela waraa (Calotropis gigantean) and rath handun or red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus), which have been propagated from seeds.
These are but a few of the “medicinal” varieties that reside in the garden. We also came across a Cactus house full of wonderful varieties of cacti and an Orchid house which was unfortunately closed that day.
There still remains more work to be done. However judging from the current progress, the dry-zone botanical garden is well on its way to being one of the most attractive and innovative gardens in Sri Lanka.
Among the facilities we spotted were an outdoor seminar area in a shady corner of the garden, and a circuit bungalow which can be booked via the Peradeniya Botanical Garden office. We also noticed a privately owned hotel that was coming up in an adjoining land.
We left the garden with every intention of returning again to see its progress. It was a pleasant farewell when we met some keen youngsters on our way out, prompting us to leave with a smile. Hopefully, the generations to come would enjoy and protect this exceptional retreat in the heart of the dry-zone.
Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photographs | Danushka Senadheera ( Topiary garden, Garden entrance, Water tank, Shady Garden, Garden bush, Maliththan fruits), Ruwan Rajapakse (Watering valves, Floriculture, Avenue, Bougainvillea garden, Elephant topiary, Cactus tree, Yellow flower bed, Cactus House), Nilu Rajapakse (White sandalwood flowers, Children in the park)