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Trees and Plants of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Trees and Plants of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)Although the luxuriant vegetation of Ceylon has at all times been the theme of enthusiastic admiration, its flora does not probably exceed 3000 phaenogamic plants; and notwithstanding that it has a number of endemic species, and a few genera, which are not found on the great Indian peninsula, still its botanical features may be described as those characteristic of the southern regions of Hindustan and the Dekkan.

The result of some recent experiments has, however, afforded a curious confirmation of the opinion ventured by Dr. Gardner, that, regarding its botany geographically, Ceylon exhibits more of the Malayan flora and that of the Eastern Archipelago, than of any portion of India to the west of it. Two plants peculiar to Malacca, the nutmeg and the mangustin, have been attempted, but unsuccessfully, to be cultivated in Bengal; but in Ceylon the former has been reared near Colombo with such singular success that its produce now begins to figure in the exports of the island; and mangustins, which, ten years ago, were exhibited as curiosities from a single tree in the old Botanic Garden at Colombo, are found to thrive readily, and they occasionally appear at table, rivalling in their wonderful delicacy of flavour those which have heretofore been regarded as peculiar to the Straits.

Up to the present time the botany of Ceylon has been imperfectly submitted to scientific scrutiny. Linnaeus, in 1747, prepared his Flora Zeylanica, from specimens collected by Hermann, which had previously constituted the materials of the Thesaurus Zeylanicus of Burman and now form part of the herbarium in the British Museum. A succession of industrious explorers have been since engaged in following up the investigation; but, with the exception of an imperfect and unsatisfactory catalogue by Moon, no enumeration of Ceylon plants has yet been published. Dr. Gardner had made some progress with a Singhalese Flora, when his death took place in 1849, an event which threw the task on other hands, and has postponed its completion for years.

From the identity of position and climate, and the apparent similarity of soil between Ceylon and the southern extremity of the Indian peninsula, a corresponding agreement might be expected between their vegetable productions: and accordingly in its aspects and subdivisions Ceylon participates in those distinctive features which the monsoons have imparted respectively to the opposite shores of Hindustan. The western coast being exposed to the milder influence of the south-west wind, shows luxuriant vegetation, the result of its humid and temperate climate; whilst the eastern, like Coromandel, has a comparatively dry and arid aspect, produced by the hot winds which blow for half the year.

The littoral vegetation of the seaborde exhibits little variation from that common throughout the Eastern archipelago; but it wants the Phoenix paludosa, a dwarf date-palm, which literally covers the islands of the Sunderbunds at the delta of the Ganges. A dense growth of mangroves occupies the shore, beneath whose overarching roots the ripple of the sea washes unseen over the muddy beach.

To render such a work (however elementary) at once accurate as well as interesting, would require sound scientific knowledge; and, however skilfully and popularly written, there would still be portions somewhat difficult of comprehension to the ordinary reader; but curiosity would be stimulated by the very occurrence of difficulty, and thus an impulse might be given to the acquisition of rudimentary botany, which would eventually enable the inquirer to contribute his quota to the natural history of Ceylon.

Retiring from the strand, there are groups of Sonneratia, Avicennia, Heritiera, and Pandanus; the latter with a stem like a dwarf palm, round which the serrated leaves ascend in spiral convolutions till they terminate in a pendulous crown, from which drop the amber clusters of beautiful but uneatable fruit, with a close resemblance in shape and colour to that of the pineapple, from which, and from the peculiar arrangement of the leaves, the plant has acquired its name of the Screw-pine.

A little further inland, the sandy plains are covered by a thorny jungle, the plants of which are the same as those of the Carnatic, the climate being alike; and wherever man has encroached on the solitude, groves of coco-nut palms mark the vicinity of his habitations.

Remote from the sea, the level country of the north has a flora almost identical with that of Coromandel; but the arid nature of the Ceylon soil, and its drier atmosphere, is attested by the greater proportion of euphorbias and fleshy shrubs, as well as by the wiry and stunted nature of the trees, their smaller leaves and thorny stems and branches.

Conspicuous amongst them are acacias of many kinds; Cassia fistula the wood apple (Feronia elephantum), and the mustard tree of Scripture (Salvadora Persica), which extends from Ceylon to the Holy Land. The margosa (Azadirachta Indica), the satin wood, the Ceylon oak, and the tamarind and ebony, are examples of the larger trees; and in the extreme north and west the Palmyra palm takes the place of the coco-nut, and not only lines the shore, but fills the landscape on every side with its shady and prolific groves.

Proceeding southward on the western coast, the acacias disappear, and the greater profusion of vegetation, the taller growth of the timber, and the darker tinge of the foliage, all attest the influence of the increased moisture both from the rivers and the rains. The brilliant Ixoras, Erythrinas, Buteas, Jonesias, Hibiscus, and a variety of flowering shrubs of similar beauty, enliven the forests with their splendour; and the seeds of the cinnamon, carried by the birds from the cultivated gardens near the coasts, have germinated in the sandy soil, and diversify the woods with the fresh verdure of its polished leaves and delicately-tinted shoots. It is to be found universally to a considerable height in the lower range of hills, and thither the Chalias were accustomed to resort to cut and peel it, a task which was imposed on them as a feudal service by the native sovereign, who paid an annual tribute in prepared cinnamon to the Dutch, and to the present time this branch of the trade in the article continues, but divested of its compulsory character.

The Dutch, in like manner, maintained, during the entire period of their rule, an extensive commerce in pepper worts, which still festoon the forest, but the export has almost ceased from Ceylon. Along with these the trunks of the larger trees are profusely covered with other delicate creepers, chiefly Convolvuli and Ipomoeas; and the pitcher-plant (Nepenthes distillatoria) lures the passer-by to halt and conjecture the probable uses of the curious mechanism, by means of which it distils a quantity of limpid fluid into the vegetable vases at the extremity of its leaves. The Orchide栳uspend their pendulous flowers from the angles of branches, whilst the bare roots and the lower part of the stem are occasionally covered with fungi of the most gaudy colours, bright red, yellow, and purple.

Of the east side of the island the botany has never yet been examined by any scientific resident, but the productions of the hill country have been largely explored, and present features altogether distinct from those of the plains. For the first two or three thousand feet the dissimilarity is less perceptible to an unscientific eye, but as we ascend, the difference becomes apparent in the larger size of the leaves, and the nearly uniform colour of the foliage, except where the scarlet shoots of the ironwood tree (Mesua ferrea) seem, like flowers in their blood-red hue. Here the broad leaves of the wild plantains (Musa textilis) penetrate the soil among the broken rocks; and in moist spots the graceful bamboo flourishes in groups, whose feathery foliage waves like the plumes of the ostrich. It is at these elevations that the sameness of the scenery is diversified by the grassy patenas before alluded to, which, in their aspect, though not their extent, may be called the Savannahs of Ceylon. Here peaches, cherries, and other European fruit trees, grow freely; but they become evergreens in this summer climate, and, exhausted by perennial excitement, and deprived of their winter repose, they refuse to ripen their fruit. A similar failure was discovered in some European vines, which were cultivated at Jaffna; but Mr. Dyke, the government agent, in whose garden they grew, conceiving that the activity of the plants might be equally checked by exposing them to an extreme of warmth, as by subjecting them to cold, tried, with perfect success, the experiment of laying bare the roots in the strongest heat of the sun. The result verified his conjecture. The circulation of the sap was arrested, the vines obtained the needful repose, and the grapes, which before had fallen almost unformed from the tree, are now brought to thorough maturity, though inferior in flavour to those produced at home.

The tea plant has been raised with complete success in the hills on the estate of the Messrs. Worms, at Rothschild, in Pusilawa; but the want of any skilful manipulators to collect and prepare the leaves, renders it hopeless to attempt any experiment on a large scale, until assistance can be secured from China, to conduct the preparation. The cultivation of tea was attempted by the Dutch, but without success.

Still ascending, at an elevation of 6500 feet, as we approach the mountain plateau of Neuera-ellia, the dimensions of the trees again diminish, the stems and branches are covered with orchide校nd mosses, and around them spring up herbaceous plants and balsams, with here and there broad expanses covered with Acanthace欠whose seeds are the favourite food of the jungle fowl, which are always in perfection during the ripening of the Nilloo. It is in these regions that the tree-ferns (Alsophila gigantea) rise from the damp hollows, and carry their gracefully plumed heads sometimes to the height of twenty feet.

At length in the loftiest range of the hills the Rhododendrons are discovered; no longer delicate bushes, as in Europe, but timber trees of considerable height, and corresponding dimensions, and every branch covered with a blaze of crimson flowers. In these forests are also to be met with some species of Michelia, the Indian representatives of the Magnolias of North America, several arboreous myrtace校nd ternstromiace欠the most common of which is the camelia-like Gordonia Ceylanica. These and Vaccinia, Gaultheria, Symploci, Goughia, and Gomphandra, establish the affinity between the vegetation of this region and that of the Malabar ranges, the Khasia and Lower Himalaya.

Generally speaking, the timber on the high mountains is of little value for oeconomic purposes. Though of considerable dimensions, it is too unsubstantial to be serviceable for building or domestic uses; and perhaps, it may be regarded as an evidence of its perishable nature, that dead timber is rarely to be seen in any quantity encumbering the ground, in the heart of the deepest forests. It seems to go to dust almost immediately after its fall, and although the process of destruction is infinitely accelerated by the ravages of insects, especially the white ants (termites) and beetles, which instantly seize on every fallen branch: still, one would expect that the harder woods would, more or less, resist their attacks till natural decomposition should have facilitated their operations and would thus exhibit more leisurely the progress of decay. But here decay is comparatively instantaneous, and it is seldom that fallen timber is to be found, except in the last stage of conversion into dust.

Some of the trees in the higher ranges are remarkable for the prodigious height to which they struggle upwards from the dense jungle towards the air and light; and one of the most curious of nature's devices, is the singular expedient by which some families of these very tall and top-heavy trees throw out buttresses like walls of wood, to support themselves from beneath. Five or six of these buttresses project like rays from all sides of the trunk: they are from six to twelve inches thick, and advance from five to fifteen feet outward; and as they ascend, gradually sink into the hole and disappear at the height of from ten to twenty feet from the ground. By the firm resistance which they offer below, the trees are effectually steadied, and protected from the leverage of the crown, by which they would otherwise be uprooted. Some of these buttresses are so smooth and flat, as almost to resemble sawn planks.

The greatest ornaments of the forest in these higher regions are the large flowering trees; the most striking of which is the Rhododendron, which in Ceylon forms a forest in the mountains, and when covered with flowers, it seems from a distance as though the hills were strewn with vermilion. This is the principal tree on the summit of Adam's Peak, and grows to the foot of the rock on which rests the little temple that covers the sacred footstep on its crest. Dr. Hooker states that the honey of its flowers is believed to be poisonous in some parts of Sikkim; but I never heard it so regarded in Ceylon.

One of the most magnificent of the flowering trees, is the coral tree[1], which is also the most familiar to Europeans, as the natives of the low country and the coast, from the circumstance of its stem being covered with thorns, plant it largely for fences, and grow it in the vicinity of their dwellings. It derives its English name from the resemblance which its scarlet flowers present to red coral, and as these clothe the branches before the leaves appear, their splendour attracts the eye from a distance, especially when lighted by the full blaze of the sun.

The Murutu[1] is another flowering tree which may vie with the Coral, the Rhododendron, or the Asoca, the favourite of Sanskrit poetry. It grows to a considerable height, especially in damp places and the neighbourhood of streams, and pains have been taken, from appreciation of its attractions, to plant it by the road side and in other conspicuous positions. From the points of the branches panicles are produced, two or three feet in length, composed of flowers, each the size of a rose and of all shades, from a delicate pink to the deepest purple. It abounds in the south-west of the island.

The magnificent Asoca is found in the interior, and is cultivated, though not successfully, in the Peradenia Garden, and in that attached to Elie House at Colombo. But in Toompane, and in the valley of Doombera, its loveliness vindicates all the praises bestowed on it by the poets of the East. Its orange and crimson flowers grow in graceful racemes, and the Singhalese, who have given the rhododendron the pre-eminent appellation of the "great red flower," (maha-rat-mal,) have called the Asoca the diya-rat-mal to indicate its partiality for "moisture," combined with its prevailing hue.

But the tree which will most frequently attract the eye of the traveller, is the kattoo-imbul of the Singhalese[1], one of which produces the silky cotton which, though incapable of being spun, owing to the shortness of its delicate fibre, makes the most luxurious stuffing for sofas and pillows. It is a tall tree covered with formidable thorns; and being deciduous, the fresh leaves, like those of the coral tree, do not make their appearance till after the crimson flowers have covered the branches with their bright tulip-like petals. So profuse are these gorgeous flowers, that when they fall, the ground for many roods on all sides is a carpet of scarlet. They are succeeded by large oblong pods, in which the black polished seeds are deeply embedded in the floss which is so much prized by the natives. The trunk is of an unusually bright green colour, and the branches issue horizontally from the stem, in whorls of threes with a distance of six or seven feet between each whorl.

Near every Buddhist temple the priests plant the Iron tree (Messua ferrea) for the sake of its flowers, with which they decorate the images of Buddha. They resemble white roses, and form a singular contrast with the buds and shoots of the tree, which are of the deepest crimson. Along with its flowers the priests use likewise those of the Champac (Michelia Champaca), belonging to the family of magnoliace殠They have a pale yellow tint, with the sweet oppressive perfume which is celebrated in the poetry of the Hindus. From the wood of the champac the images of Buddha are carved for the temples.

The celebrated Upas tree of Java (Antiaris toxicaria) which has been the subject of so many romances, exploded by Dr. Horsfield, was supposed by Dr. Gardner to exist in Ceylon, but more recent scrutiny has shown that what he mistook for it, was an allied species, the A. saccidora, which grows at Kornegalle, and in other parts of the island; and is scarcely less remarkable, though for very different characteristics. The Ceylon species was first brought to public notice by E. Rawdon Power, Esq., government agent of the Kandyan province, who sent specimens of it, and of the sacks which it furnishes, to the branch of the Asiatic Society at Colombo. It is known to the Singhalese by the name of "ritigaha," and is identical with the Lepurandra saccidora, from which the natives of Coorg, like those of Ceylon, manufacture an ingenious substitute for sacks by a process which is described by Mr. Nimmo. "A branch is cut corresponding to the length and breadth of the bag required, it is soaked and then beaten with clubs till the liber separates from the timber. This done, the sack which is thus formed out of the bark is turned inside out, and drawn downwards to permit the wood to be sawn off, leaving a portion to form the bottom which is kept firmly in its place by the natural attachment of the bark."

As we descend the hills the banyans and a variety of figs make their appearance. They are the Thugs of the vegetable world, for although not necessarily epiphytic, it may be said that in point of fact no single plant comes to perfection, or acquires even partial development, without the destruction of some other on which to fix itself as its supporter. The family generally make their first appearance as slender roots hanging from the crown or trunk of some other tree, generally a palm, among the moist bases of whose leaves the seed carried thither by some bird which had fed upon the fig, begins to germinate. This root branching as it descends, envelopes the trunk of the supporting tree with a network of wood, and at length penetrating the ground, attains the dimensions of a stem. But unlike a stem it throws out no buds, leaves, or flowers; the true stem, with its branches, its foliage, and fruit, springs upwards from the crown of the tree whence the root is seen descending; and from it issue the pendulous rootlets, which, on reaching the earth, fix themselves firmly and form the marvellous growth for which the banyan is so celebrated. In the depth of this grove, the original tree is incarcerated till, literally strangled by the folds and weight of its resistless companion, it dies and leaves the fig in undisturbed possession of its place. It is not unusual in the forest to find a fig-tree which had been thus upborne till it became a standard, now forming a hollow cylinder, the centre of which was once filled by the sustaining tree: but the empty walls form a circular network of interlaced roots and branches; firmly agglutinated under pressure, and admitting the light through interstices that look like loopholes in a turret.