Archive for the ‘Flora’ Category

All in the family

May 28, 2014
Ajantha Palihawadana’s new Orchid varieties are named after his wife and children

Walking into his garden in early January to start watering his collection of orchids, breeder and researcher Ajantha Palihawadana noticed some flowers that looked different amidst the Dendrobiums. He quickly checked the plant tag and referred his hybridisation notes to realise that the flowering plant was a cross between Dendrobiumlineale and Dendrobium.shavinonwhite orchids.

Ajantha has selected the name Dendrobium Ganga rani for the new hybrid after his wife Ganga Rani Palihawadana in appreciation of her work in looking after his plant collection while he is out in the field.

Producing hybrid orchids, by crossing the orchids with pollen of other varieties to bring out new combinations has its own challenges, according to expert orchid breeders. Dendrobium is a huge genus of Orchids (Genus is a classification used to group one or more species that has common characteristics which is the taxonomic rank just above that of the species name) with over 1,600 species.
Ajantha recalls that he cross-pollinated Dendrobiumlineale and Dendrobiumshavionwhite in early 2003. Dendrobiumlineale is a species that grows along the north-eastern coast of New Guinea. Its inflorescences are up to 75 cm (30 in) long with many flowers- sometimes more than 60 flowers, which can bloom throughout the year. Dendrobiumshavionwhite is about six cm tall and 6.5 cm across, and has sepals and lateral petals which are white with light green veins. The column and lip are greenish white with slightly darker green veins.

“I was not sure what to expect; but I knew something valuable would come as the Dendrobiumlineale is a species with many flowers, a

Named after his son and daughter: Dendrobium Ganga rani var Kasun (left) and Dendrobium Ganga rani var Harini (right)

frequent flowering habit and tolerates more sunlight than other Dendrobiums. When the normal Dendrobium crosses flower for the first time they may produce three to four flowers, but the Dendrobium Ganga rani plant produced 24 flowers. I’m happy that what I dreamt of has come true,”Ajantha said Ajantha and his family found some of the other plants mature bringing more varieties of the new hybrid. Ajantha named them as Dendrobium Ganga rani var Kasun and Dendrobium Ganga rani var Harini after his son Anjana Kasun Palihawadana and his daughter Harini Yamani Palihawadana. “These two varieties are also equally promising since one of the parent plants has a prolific flowering habit so we can expect frequent flowering plants which could be a good attraction in the cut flower industry,” Ajantha added.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140427/plus/all-in-the-family-93568.html

Instead of Erabadu; Pink Trumpet unfolds petals for New Year

April 13, 2014

Erabudu is the flower of the Avurudu season but you will hardly be able to find erabadu these days. Instead, rosy trumpet (tabebuia) flowers bloom, marking the onset of the New Year season. (photos by Susantha Udagedara) 

This is the famous sakura flower season in Japan with thousands of cherry trees in full bloom. The cherry trees shed their leaves in winter and in spring become fully covered by white or pink blooms, making a spectacular show of nature.

In a similar spectacle, a pink flower started blooming in many parts of Sri Lanka two weeks ago — the blooms of the rosy trumpet, Tabebuia rosea, colloquially known as rabarosia.

Tabebuia usually blooms in February-March; but this time the trees were in full bloom in the last week of March, marking the onset of the Aluth Avurudda. The full bloom is over now, and the trees have fresh greenish tender leaves, but a few flowers can still be seen.
Tabebuia is native to South America and was brought to Sri Lanka as an exotic plant for the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya in the 1800s.

The Japanese plant sakura trees close to one another so that when they bloom they make a spectacular scene. Our urban planners can think about using the 30-foot tall tabebuia trees in a similar manner. Like sakura, the falling tabebuia flowers make a spectacular scene — the ground under the trees becomes pink with fallen flowers, making it a treat for the eyes. Street sweepers might not like it!
The recent sporadic rains brought flowers to ehela trees and some mara trees that start blooming as Avurudda approaches. But sadly, erabudu – the traditional sign of the season – seems to be vanishing.

Erabudu is the Indian coral tree (Erythrina variegate) and its bright red flower (inflorescence) that resembles a tiger claw blooms from February to April, coinciding with the Avurudu season. Erabudu trees have thorns and grow straight, making them a perfect hedge planting. But nowadays such fences have been replaced by parapet walls.

Sri Lanka gets 300 Sakura Plants 

Meanwhile the Japan Sakura Exchange Association donated 300 sakura plants to Sri Lanka at a small ceremony held at the Japanese Embassy recently. Japanese Ambassador Nobuhito Hobo said sakura flowers symbolised peace and the donation would strengthen the long-standing relationship between Japan and Sri Lanka. These sakura plants belong to a special cultivar called Prunus campanulata cultivar “Yoko”, suitable for planting above 1,500m. Some will be set in the grounds of the Hakgala Botanical Gardens.

Mr Wakisaka and the Ambassador Hobo showing a photo of the flowers of the Sakura plants gifted.

Mr Wakisaka and the Ambassador Hobo showing a photo of the flowers of the Sakura plants gifted.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.04.2014 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140413/news/newcomer-unfolds-petals-for-new-year-92563.html

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Off to Kumamoto to see Japan’s famed cherry blossoms

April 11, 2014

“The Sakura flower is extremely beautiful, but its splendour does not last long. A few days after blossoming, the flower starts to disintegrate, reminding us of the uncertainty of life,” said Nobuko, my Japanese colleague explaining how the Japanese view the cherry blossom season.

The Sakura’s bloom marks the arrival of spring, as the trees bloom only when climatic conditions are right. Missing them in Tokyo, I was lucky to see them in Kumamoto city at the heart of Japan’s southernmost island Kyushu.

Kumamoto is roughly about 40 minutes by domestic flight (six hours from Tokyo by train). Signs of Sakura could be seen as soon as we exited the airport.

Literature says cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry, Prunusserrulata. As my Japanese colleague explained, there are many varieties of Sakura flowers ranging from pink to white. However, white is the most popular Sakura flower among the Japanese. When over 80% of Sakura flowers open up, it is called a ‘Full Bloom’ and the Japanese go out to picnic in parks to enjoy the dawn of spring. The trees in Kumamoto were a few days prior to a full bloom, but were already infested by a swarm of white butterflies. The Sakura trees line the main roads, making it a beautiful sight. Some of the tree branches are bandaged with medicines to prevent them becoming infected with disease – a reminder of how well the Japanese look after these trees.
Kumamoto though offers more than the Sakura. Tasting the cleanest water directly from the source was another experience, the city being famous for its groundwater springs. There are a few hot water springs too in the vicinity and the tour also took us to visit one of the largest active volcanos in the world.

Passing barren mountains that had traces of crystalized lava, we moved toward Mount Aso located about 30 miles away from the city. Disappointing and scary news reached us while on the way that due to high volcanic activity, the public would not be allowed to go to the crater but things had settled by the time we reached there and we were allowed to climb all the way up.

Though having seen many documentaries about volcanoes, I never thought it would be so scary to look at one up close. The volcano was emitting gushing whitish fumes with fury from the heated volcanic lava, the sound captured by the ears more frightening than what has been seen by the eyes. The scent of sulfur was everywhere and announcements were constantly made that asthma sufferers should not go closer.

A tour to Kumamoto is not complete without visiting its most symbolic historic monument; the Kumamoto castle, incidentally the location for the Tom Cruise movie ‘The Last Samurai’. The movie is based on the historic events of the Satsuma Rebellion that took place in 1877 and the final battle between Samurai warriors and the empire’s troops that took place in Kumamoto. Dating back to the 1600s, the Kumamoto Castle is considered a most impregnable fortress with singular features such as its curved stone walls called mushagaeshi and its wooden overhangs, originally designed as protection against the ninja, together with its black and white main towers according to the guides.

Today, Kumamoto Castle also houses a museum which contains palanquins, samurai armour, Japanese swords and other artefacts from the Kato and Hosokawa clans, as well as detailed information on the castle’s remarkable history. It is also an excellent site for cherry blossom viewing,
The friendly people are the most valuable asset of Kumamoto. If you are lost, most would not hesitate to come along to show you the way. I even found a Sri Lankan restaurant in Kumamoto!

Published on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140406/plus/off-to-kumamoto-to-see-japans-famed-cherry-blossoms-91446.html Photo credit for Cherry Blossoms in ‘Full Bloom’ Chunli Yang.

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Large haul of Red Sandalwood seized by Customs

November 24, 2013

Red Sanders 22Nov2013. 6iA large haul of Red Sandalwood (rath handun – රත් හදුන්) shipment has been seized by Sri Lanka customs this week. Based on a tip received by customs, the container which has been declared as sanitary items has been opened on Friday 22nd of November by customs officers. Instead of sanitary items, the shipment contained contained 4.5 metric tons of Red Sandalwood which is valued for about 100 million rupees.

The sandlewood shipment has been originated from a port of Chennai in India and en-route to Dubai which is a hub of red sandalwood smuggling. Talking to SundayTimes about this seizer, Samantha Gunasekera – the chief preventive officer of Sri Lanka customs said that this the shipment contained the best quality matured red sandalwood. Mr.Gunasekara recalls stopping about 4 shipments of Red Sandlewoods during last few years, revealing that this is the largest such shipment seized in Sri Lanka so far.

Red Sandlewood scientifically categorized as is a tree native to India. Its wood is having a fragrance and popular for its medicinal values. Red Sandalwood timber is also being used making of expensive furniture, natural dyes, natural colorations or perfume; hence received a high demand which pushed the tree to the brink of extinction where it has now become an ‘Endangered’. Cutting Red Sandalwood is banned in India, and the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) has restricted its legal international trade. So it is feared that the racketeers are trying to exploit Sri Lankan ports as transit point for illegal wildlife trade. However, thank to amendment of law, the Customs officers can now even seize goods in transit, according to Mr.Gunasekara.

Red Sandalwood doesn’t grow naturally in the wilds of Sri Lanka and only few trees introduced from India are present in few places. However, the White Sandalwood (Santalum album – සුදු හදුන්) that grows in Sri Lanka has been heavily exploited. The White Sandalwood has become a protected tree in 2009 and now it is illegal to cut. But as SundayTimes reported earlier this month, the instances where White Sandalwood smuggling has increased, despite the ban making it illegal. It is claim that the Sandalwood trees in gardens are been cut illegally at night by these racketeers. The customs Biodiversity Protection unit has also thwarted several attempts the white Sandalwood products are being smuggled out of the country.

The Sri Lanka customs are conducting further investigations regarding the seized Red Sandalwood, said customs spokesperson.

Weni wel the local paracetamol in market hot water

March 10, 2013

Forest officials and experts have expressed serious concern over illegal and unchecked harvesting of weni wel, Sri Lanka’s age-old multi-cure herb, by racketeers and profiteers driven by the high demand for it. �Recently, forest officers in Thawalama arrested four people who were transporting without a permit some 700 kg of weni wel. Thawalama forest officer Sunil Kaluthotage said the suspects pleaded guilty when they were produced before a magistrate.

Prematurely harvested weni wel stems being dried.

The case was the latest addition to the series of detections made in the area. �Mr. Kaluthotage said that during the past 12 months, at least six illegal ‘weni wel’ cases were reported from his range alone and this showed that haphazard harvesting was on the rise to meet the demand for weni wel in the market.�Locally known as weni wel, weniwelgata or ban wel, the plant has Ayurvedic medicinal properties. Described as the Ayurvedic equivalent of paracetamol, weni wel is a much sought after herbal cure for ailments ranging from common flu to tetanus. It is a key ingredient in the famous Pas Panguwa.

Known as ‘False Calumba’ in English and coscinium fenestratum scientifically, weni wel is a woody climber commonly found in Sri Lanka’s lowland wet forests such as Sinharaja and Kanneliya. The plant is also native to South India, Cambodia and West Malaysia. �But unchecked harvesting of weni wel, which takes decades to reach maturity, has raised alarm among experts. They say that some plants take 30 years to mature to the level which gives it a ‘geta’ or knotty appearance – a sign that indicates that it was of best quality.

The herb is also used in a range of commercial products including soap, creating a big demand for it. �Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke, an expert on forests, said he believed that the demand for it in the market had led to unchecked and premature harvesting of weni wel.�“While we can be happy that a traditional herbal product has found new and emerging markets both locally and overseas, can the resource base cope with the current and projected demand?” he asked, stressing the need for a thorough research to find the right balance.

“As biology researchers of both timber and non-timber forest products, we realised this need several decades ago. We have been studying the weni wel’s biology and ecology as well as its propagation and cultivation in a number of habitats with a view to reducing the extractive pressure on the wild populations,” he said.

Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke warned that if this current level of extraction was permitted, weni wel would soon, if not already, be on the list of threatened plants of Sri Lanka.
The eminent botany professor said he had seen large stocks of dried weni wel stems along the Kukule-Molkawa road, ready for transport. He said the people had told him that they had paid for their permits to harvest them.

Prof. Gunatilleke said that since weni wel grew better in partial light and was commonly found in degraded forests and forest edges, the plant could be grown in pine forests in the wet zone and in home gardens. He said the weni-wel plants that were planted at the edge of Sinharaja on experimental basis reached harvestable level within 15 years or so with no fertiliser added, though the quality would have been better if the harvest had been done much later.

A common sight along the Kukule-Molkawa road

The professor welcomed a recent suggestion by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa to set up a forest in every village.�“This concept of ‘one forest for one village’ would be an excellent proposition in managing local ecosystems while providing benefit to the local people. At the same time, it would also be worthwhile to consider how the existing pine plantations could be converted into forests of native plants, both timber and non-timber species,” he said adding that this would help enhance biological diversity and ensure environmental security.

“On our part, we have shown that this could be done in the lowland wet zone using suites of such species of ecological and rural economic importance in Sinharaja and Hantana demonstration plots. More such studies are needed, if we are to conserve and utilise our rich biological heritage, bringing in tangible benefit to the local communities,” Prof. Gunatilleke said.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.03.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130310/news/weni-wel-the-local-paracetamol-in-market-hot-water-36197.html

Environmentalists not in favour of breeding rare fish for export

January 25, 2013

Environment watchers are angered by plans to legalise the breeding of rare fish and the cultivation of rare water plants for export. They say the Ministry of Economic Development, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and other government agencies are working together to amend the relevant laws – by Malaka Rodrigo

Malpulutta. Courtesy Galle Wildlife Conservation Society

The export proposal covers eight endemic freshwater fish and 13 endemic water plants. Six of the named fish are “critically endangered” and the other two are “endangered”, according to the 2012 National Red List for Sri Lanka. The Red List is an international classification of the world’s threatened animal and plant species. The water plants include two varieties of “kekatiya” (Aponogeton), seven varieties of “ketala” (Laginandra), and four water plants known as “athi udayan” (Cryptocoryne).

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG), which has conducted an islandwide survey on freshwater fish, says these fish are too rare to be subjected to a breeding programme. In 2009 and 2012, the society visited areas where, according to previous surveys, the rare fish could be found. A fresh survey noted that most of these rare fish species were not to be found at most of these sites.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane fears that the export plan could set a risky precedent. Allowing the legal breeding and export of these rare fish could encourage profiteers to hunt for these same fish in the wild.

But the Live Tropical Fish Exporters Association of Sri Lanka says the breeding and export of these rare fish would overall boost lucrative freshwater fish exports from Sri Lanka. At a recent press conference, the association pointed out that Sri Lanka is the loser after restrictions on the breeding of endemic species had led to rare fish being smuggled out of the country and bred elsewhere for profit.

Freshwater fish authority Samantha Gunasekara sees no problem in breeding rare fish, so long as it is done properly and scientifically, and is closely monitored. Mr. Gunasekara, who works for the Customs’ Biodiversity Protection Unit, says that many endemic fish that have completely disappeared from Sri Lanka are being bred in other countries.

The government has appointed a committee to oversee the fish breeding programme. It includes the Department of Wildlife Conservation; the Forest Department; the National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA); the Botanic Gardens Department, and Sri Lanka Customs.Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle president Madura de Silva said fish breeding exercises tended to produce “less colourful” fish than the same species caught in the wild. He feared that exporters would prefer fish caught in the wild.

According to the 2012 National Red List on Conservation Status, one in two species of Sri Lanka’s 91 freshwater fish species risk going extinct in the wild. The most vulnerable freshwater fish are found in streams lying outside the Protected Area Network. These streams are prone to pollution and habitat loss.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.01.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130120/news/environmentalists-not-in-favour-of-breeding-rare-fish-for-export-29356.html

Painting with colours hidden in nature

January 12, 2013

The SHILPA 2012 – National Handicrafts Exhibition that was held at the end of 2012 had many interesting exhibits on display but this artist’s work merited closer attention from visitors due to its unique and innovative method of creations. Made using only wood- a collage of wooden chips and scraps, the works on show were eyecatching in their intricate composition.

“I have used wood scraps, wood chips and their dust to create this artwork,” the artist Udayanga Weerasinghe explained. “These are scraped using the normal ‘yathukete’ to get delicate wood scraps and wood chips. Using a ‘welikadadasiya’ (sand paper), I get the wood dust of different colouration which is then mixed with glue for this artwork,” he said.

The works are full of colour but Udayanga says these are all the natural colours of wood. “Each wood has its unique colours which I carefully select to get the suitable shade to give life to the creatures and background.” He opens a small bag and shows us fine scraps of wood. They are all different colours from black, red, orange, beige, brown to white. Black is from Ebony, red is from Pathengi wood, orange from Bakmee and yellow is from Jak – a few of the options he has.

The colour of the wood darkens from outer softwood toward the inner hardwood. “Kos lee alone can be used to get lots of different shades from yellow to orange,” he says. The timber of the Biling tree (Averrhoabilimbi) too is one of Udayanga’s favourite as it enables him to work with white.

“Wood scrapings and dust of about 60 trees has been used for this artwork,” said Udayanga pointing out the different kinds of woods used in designing the vibrant collage of Junglefowl fighting and the forested habitat. The collage also has a flowing river with rocky banks. “The water which is white is made using Billing tree scrapings which are then glued and the edges broken by hand to give a natural flowing effect,” explained Udayanga. He also used a billing wood that has been seasoned under mud for some time for the rocks. “When billing wood is submerged in mud over a period, it brings a nice ‘wairamwairam’ curvy design. I had used the same for the sky to get this effect,” Udayanga said.

Lichen that grows on the outer bark is also used. The decaying log in the ‘Junglefowl fighting’ work is naturally decaying wood. He pasted lichen on it to give a more natural look and Ebony dust mixed with glue to give depth to the hollow inside the log.
‘Weniwel’ dust which is greenish has been used for grass and foliage. For the trees, the weniwel dust has been used together with juice of some greenish leaves such as Manioc to get a darker shade of green.

While onlookers admire the work, he also shows some of his previous creations of bathing elephants, birds, Buddhist monuments, and even scenes from Colombo.

This craft was introduced to Sri Lanka about 35 years ago in the ’70s by Udayanga’s father Berty Weerasinghe. The Weerasinghe family from Badulla has mastered this method and made a living creating these works. Udayanga has already won six awards but says that he is disappointed when judges sometimes overlook his creations believing that paints has been used in the work.

With about six of the Weerasinghe families making a living out of this craft Udayanga is hopeful that if he gets support to expand his workshop, he can further develop this technique to bring out more creative designs. Udayanga can be contacted on 0713375968.

Published on SundayTimes on 06.01.2013 www.sundaytimes.lk/130106/plus/painting-with-colours-hidden-in-nature-26799.html 

The Junglefowl fight - a masterpiece made by using wood scrapes and wood dust

The Junglefowl fight – a masterpiece made by wood scrapes and wood dust

Raw materials used for the design

Raw materials used for the design

Two new Lichens from Horton Plains

March 18, 2012
Considered one of the oldest organisms on earth, there are some 600 species of lichen in Sri Lanka – By Malaka Rodrigo
 
Two new lichen species have been discovered at Horton Plains by botanists. Scientifically named Anzia mahaeliyensis and Anzia flavotenuis, these will upgrade the endemic checklist of Sri Lankan Lichens.
A field study on lichen diversity in Horton Plains conducted by Dr. Udeni Jayalal together with Dr. Siril Wijesundara and Prof. Veranja Karunaratne in 2004/2005 under a research grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) led to this discovery.

Anzia flavotenuis
Anzia mahaeliyensis

Dr. Jayalal said they collected over 3000 lichen specimens from different ecosystems of Horton Plains and these were first analyzed considering their morphology or external characteristics. Those that didn’t match with known lichens were sent to the Natural History Museum of the UK for further analysis on molecular characters through DNA tests. The DNA patterns of these two did not match any existing lichens so it was concluded that the researchers had made a breakthrough in discovering two new lichen species.

According to the accepted norm, the researchers were given the chance to name them. Dr. Jayalal wanted to name them after his mentors Dr. Wijesundara and Prof. Karunaratne, but they opted for a more suitable name depicting the characteristics of the lichens and habitats that they were discovered in. One was named Anzia mahaeliyensis from the local name of Horton Plains – “Mahaeliya Thenne” and as the internal parts of the second lichen were yellowish, it was named Anzia flavotenuis, flavotenuis referring to yellow.

Lichens are believed to be one of the oldest organisms colonized on earth. But presently they are threatened due to many factors including pollution and habitat loss. However, little work has been done on lichens in Sri Lanka and knowledge of their diversity and distribution is incomplete. Dr. Jayalal says that presently there are over 600 lichens found in Sri Lanka, but this number can be as high as 1500 pointing to the need to do more studies.

On a roadside rock at Ramboda Pass near Nuwara Eliya, the same group of researchers found another lichen species Lepraria atrotomentosa that had gone unrecognized for years. But sadly this rock has been blasted away during recent road widening. Likewise there could be many lichens yet to be discovered. Lichen is not a single organism the way most other living things are, but rather a combination of two organisms which live together intimately.

Every lichen species is a fungus that encompasses a photosynthesis organism that uses sunlight to produce foods from carbon dioxide and water. Usually the other species is a photosynthesizing alga, but sometimes it can be a photosynthesizing bacterium known as cyanobacteria (neela haritha algae in Sinhala). This is a symbiotic relationship where both fungus and algae need each other for their own survival. Algae provide the food for the fungus and in return the fungi provide protection. Fungi also make a medium to soak up water and nutrients which provide the algae a medium to grow.

The fungus holds the lichen firmly onto the surface on which it is growing. This partnership also allows lichens to grow in harsh environments, at low temperatures and in low light conditions. The main body of lichen is called a thallus. The thallus may be covered by or enmeshed by the fungus. The inner region of an organ or tissue of lichen is known as Medulla. A. mahaeliyensis is characterised by a white single-layered medulla and A. flavotenuis by a two-layered medulla with the upper layer yellow and the lower part white.

“Lichens are good environmental indicators since they are sensitive to pollutants,” points out Dr. Wijesundara. Lichens, unlike most living organisms, are unable to ‘refuse’ entry to many chemicals into their bodies. This means that chemicals can freely invade them and interfere with their metabolic processes, often killing the lichen. However, some species of lichens are tolerant to some pollutants, so by observing the kind of lichens and their prevalence, one can predict about the air quality of the area without sophisticated equipments.

Horton Plains is very rich in lichens, so the researcher suggests this prime ecosystem is still unaffected by air pollution. “We see very few lichens in Colombo and other cities, but their numbers increase as we get to rural areas” Dr. Jayalal says. Lichens have other uses.

There are many dyes, medicines and important chemicals extracted from lichens. Litmus, the colour-changing dye used to make pH indicator paper, is in fact a compound extracted from lichens. While biologists are primarily interested in studying the natural habitat and its organisms, chemists have their eyes on the pharmaceutical value of the organic compounds isolated from natural organisms. Scientific tests have proved there are antibiotic values in these lichanic substances.

Many creatures including squirrels and birds use lichens for cushioning and patching their nests to camouflage them. Moths and butterflies also feed on lichens.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.03.2012 http://sundaytimes.lk/120318/News/nws_51.html 

Wild orchid, Nervilia Plicata blooms in Lanka too

August 15, 2011

Nervilia Plicata : An orchid recorded from tropics

In the midst of a study, researcher Ajantha Palihawadana was puzzled by a strange looking plant in a home garden in Koswatte. It had only one leaf. Recognizing it as a ground orchid, though different from others he had seen, he placed it in a pot in his garden waiting for it to bloom.

A few months later, the leaf died. But knowing the strange behaviour of some orchids, Ajantha marked the pot and kept it aside. A few months later, he was thrilled to see a flowering shoot emerge from the soil. And when, the flowers bloomed, the plant’s true beauty was seen. Scientifically categorized as Nervilia Plicata –it was the first confirmed record of this species from Sri Lanka.

Nervilia Plicata is an orchid recorded from tropical Asia and growing in India. This finding confirmed its presence in Sri Lanka too updating the National Orchid checklist to 189.

Nervilia Plicata has some special characteristics. The width of its hairy heart shaped single leaf can be from 7.7cm to 10.8cm. The leaf can look dark green or dark purple depending on the angle of exposure to light.

This large leaf dies after a few months, but its rhizome (the horizontal stem of the plant) survives underground. Then during March, April and May – the flowers appear. Nervilia Plicata produces two flowers usually a foot above the ground, a mix of purple and green and about 6 centimetres in diameter. Unlike most orchids, this flower also has a fragrance but lasts only four to five days.

Ajantha said there had been several specimens of Nervilia orchids deposited in the National Herbarium previously, but they were not properly identified. However, for the first time, now a complete specimen has been deposited in the herbarium, so that other scientists too can observe the species.

The study of wild orchids is time-consuming but also rewarding, says Dr. Suranjan Fernando, another scientist involved

This large leaf dies after a few months

in orchid research. Sri Lanka has epiphytic orchids that usually grow on trees, terrestrial orchids, climbing orchids and also saprophytic orchids. Saprophytic orchids, like Nervilia that live on dead organic matter such as leaf litters are also interesting as they do not have any leaves and only a flower. They depend on fungi for their entire supply of nourishment. Most orchid flowers also had different adaptations to attract different kind of pollinators, Dr. Fernando said.

Such interlinks also make the wild orchids threatened. For, if a specialized pollinator insect has been removed from the ecosystem by extensive use of pesticide etc, the orchids lose means of pollination. But the main threat remains habitat loss, says Dr. Fernando pointing out that most of the orchid rich habitats such as Uva Savannah, the Peak Wilderness, Morningside of Sinharaja are being progressively degraded.

IUCN’s National Red List of Threatened Flora & Fauna of Sri Lanka published in 2007 also paints a gloomy picture for orchids as it records 4 extinct species, 22 critically endangered and 47 endangered plants out of the reviewed species.

Director of Sri Lanka Botanical Gardens Department Dr.Siril Wijesundara said that Sri Lanka has lost about 83% of her wildlife habitat during the last two centuries and if the remaining habitats are not protected, it will have a serious impact on our beautiful orchids. These highly specialized and sensitive plants are extremely vulnerable to ecosystem changes.

Some of our orchid species including the beautiful, endemic Vanda thwaitesii have not been seen in Sri Lanka for more than a century, he said.

Nervilia Plicata habitats are also threatened, adds Ajantha Palihawadana adding that studies done by True Nature Conservation Society led by himself found the plant also in Ravana Ella and Balangoda. According to the records, this orchid is restricted to the savannah ecosystems in the Intermediate Climatic Zone where trees are scattered in grasslands.

The wet patches located in this area are the home of this orchid, but unfortunately this is also one of the highly threatened habitats in Sri Lanka.

Dr.Wijesundara points out that the collection of rare orchids from the wild by hobbyists is on the increase and needs immediate control. Many also remove wild orchids to their home gardens, but these orchids need special habitats and conditions, and will die or will not flower the way they do in the wild so are best left untouched.

Published on SundayTImes on 14.08.2011 http://sundaytimes.lk/110814/Plus/plus_07.html 

Cannabis trade flourishing in the south

August 13, 2011

Cab caught while transporting cannabis 

A vehicle has been caught while transporting 50 kilograms of cannabis at Sella Kataragama by the Special Task Force (STF) last week. The cab had a fake name board indicating it belongs to the Secretary of the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms to avert security checks. It is also reported that the vehicle belongs to a local politician in Embilipitiya and this highlights the local politician’s involvement in this illegal cannabis industry.

Cannabis (Ganja) has become a lucrative business and Embilipitiya/Thanamalwila has been the famous hub for the illegal
trade. Large areas of forests in these areas are cleared for cannabis chenas and it is a well-known secret that they have the local politicians’ blessings. This makes it more complex and though few raids occur once in a while, the illegal cannabis trade continues unabaited in these areas as per the local sources.

These cannabis chenas are usually located in the thick jungles. Forests in Udawalawa area and less visited areas in Yala National Parks are said to be in the clutches of the cannabis mafia. The Department of Wildlife Conservation too has been involved in raiding these illegal cultivations and lately STF too has joined this fight. Experts also pointed out the possibilities of using technology to spot the cannabis chena using satellite maps. Even the freely available Google Earth can be used in this purpose as it indicates the cleared areas where tree cover is removed.

So if there is a real willingness, the cannabis fight can be won – but the involvement of local politicians are making it hard. Last week in Deniyaya, a local politician has also initiated constructing a road adjoining the Morning Side of Sinharaja, indicating they do not respect the environment – but encourage clearing the forests for short term gains.

Published on TimesOnline http://sundaytimes.lk/latest/9538-canabis-trade-flourishing-in-the-south.html

Sakura: Blooming through Disaster

April 30, 2011

The Sinhala article on Sakura bloom in Japan published on Lankadeepa on 17.04.2011

Erabadu: the Disappearing Symbol of Avurudu

April 13, 2011
This is the season of Avurudu, but Erabadu – one of Avurudu’s messenger – is disappearing. This article published  on Lankadeepa on 10.04.2011 highlights the issue and recommends atleast planting of few Erabadu trees in parks around the country so that the next generation can also witness this symbol of Avurudu..!!  

Published below is an article written on the same on 2009 on Erabadu for SundayTimes…

In search of a messenger of Avurudu Only two more days to Avurudu, heralded by the song of the Koha and the blossoms of Erabadu. The Koha’s sweet melody fills the air, but where is the Erabadu – the bright red beauty that symbolizes the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, asks Malaka Rodrigo. Pic by B.A. Ulhas “There was a big Erabadu tree near our playground when we were kids. In April, the tree would be bedecked in red blossoms, reminding us of the forthcoming Avurudu. Sadly the tree was cut down few years ago,” says Susantha Kuruwita, an old boy of Mahanama College and keen nature lover, showing us the empty spot on the busy Duplication Road where this tree once stood. 

In search of Erabadu, I circulated an email among my friends asking for places where Erabadu trees grew in Colombo. One recalled an Erabadu tree being cut down near Anderson flats. Like many other Avurudu traditions, this symbol too has fallen victim to urbanization.

In the past, Erabadu was commonly used as a fence post. An Erabadu stick grows straight and thorny. It also sprouts easily making it an ideal hedge plant and this made Erabadu abundant in many home gardens in the good old days. “But where do we find fences these days? Almost all houses have parapet walls,” Susantha points out. Having a garden is also a luxury for most Colombo citizens.

In rural areas, especially in the dry zone, Erabadu still survives. Sri Lanka has two Erabadu species that are indigenous, but they are getting rarer according to botanists. The one that is commonly referred to as the messenger of New Year is known as the Indian Coral Tree (Erythrina variegate). The bright red flower (inflorescence) that resembles a tiger claw blooms from February to April, coinciding with the Avurudu season and this was why, probably, our ancestors called it a messenger of the New Year.
The other native Erabadu species is even rarer. Dr. Syril Wijesundara, Director General of the National Botanical Gardens says he has found it only in a few places. This Erabadu species, is known as Yak Erabadu, (Erythrina fusca). “Many consider Erabadu as a useless tree and if that thinking continues, both species of Erabadu will become rare in areas where people live,” warns Dr. Wijesundara.

But Erabadu is not without its uses. The tender leaves of Erabadu can be made into a curry that is famous among villagers. Mature leaves can be a useful nutrient-rich cattle fodder. The bark and leaves are used in Ayurveda as a medicinal substance. The wood is not strong enough to be used as a building material, but in India this soft wood is used to make ornaments.

There are also about six exotic Erabadu varieties that are imported to be used for gardening. These don’t grow too tall, but we need to try to plant our native Erabadu as much as possible, emphasized Dr. Wijesundara.

Erabadu is also an important food plant for birds. The flowers are adapted for pollination by birds that feed on its nectar. Erabadu flowers during the dry season play a vital role in sustaining bird species, by providing water, instant energy through sugars and also amino acids and proteins in their floral nectar according to a study done in India. Some species of Erabadu are also used as a host plant by a moth. It is also a legume plant that converts atmospheric nitrogen to mix with soil that can be absorbed by roots. Hence it is a plant that has ecological value.

Colombo still has a few Erabadu trees that have survived the axe of urbanization and Ruk Rakaganno, the tree society of Sri Lanka, also stress the need to protect them. “Sometimes people cut off trees like Erabadu, thinking these are useless. But it is very important to think twice before cutting any trees,” says a member of the society.

A disease that can damage the Erabadu, causing its bark to get black and the branches to become stunted has also been observed. A tree that has been affected still survives in the Fifth Lane neighbourhood in Colombo 3.

The authorities were alerted, but to-date there has been no response, says the Ruk Rakaganno member. It is the duty of the city authorities to look after the remaining Erabadu trees in Colombo and perhaps, the Colombo Municipal Council should take the first steps this Avurudu to plant Erabadu trees in places like Vihara Maha Devi Park, to keep this beautiful symbol of the New Year alive for the next generation.

Let’s play Olinda

April 10, 2011
As people prepare for the festive season, Malaka Rodrigo looks at a traditional avurudu game – ‘Olinda Keliya’ and the sting behind the bright red and black seed used “Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne Bangali dese..
Genath handanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne sinhala dese..”

This song heard during the Avurudu season over TV reminds us of the traditional Olinda Keliya (game), a firm favourite during the new year.

‘Olinda Keliya’ is a board game also known as Mancala games where a wooden board known as “Olinda Kolombuwa” or “Olinda Poruwa” which has several holes is used. The rules can differ from area to area, but the game is normally played by two players seated on either side of the board. On either side of the poruwa there are usually nine holes in which are placed four beads each. The beads are Olinda seeds that can be found in abundance in villages.

The players have to shift the beads from one hole to the other and collect the seeds found in the hole immediately after an empty one. Ultimately the player who could collect the largest amount of olinda beads becomes the winner of the game.


The Olinda vine

The ‘Olinda Kolumbuwa’ also showcases the creativity of Sri Lankan traditional wood carvers. These boards are usually made of ebony (kaluwara) wood and beautifully carved. Most of these boards that are with families were designed during the Kandyan period. There is also a large collection of these boards in the Colombo Museum indicating how popular the game must have been in those days. ‘Olinda Keliya’ is also special, since it is mainly played by the women of the house while other traditional games are played mainly by men.

However, the most attractive element of this game is the shiny little red and black seed – Olinda. Crab’s eye is its common English name while the seed is also known as Jequirity, Rosary Pea or Indian licorice. The scientific name is Abrus precatorius. Olinda is a slender creeper that can grow large if the conditions are right. The vine has long, pinnate-leafleted leaves.

The Olinda vine has small whitish, pink or purplish pea-shaped flowers that bloom in dense slightly elongated clusters. Individual flowers have five small green sepals, which are fused together at the base into a short tube as per botanical sources. The fruit is a flat and relatively broad pod (20-35 mm long and 12-15 mm wide) with a sharp point. These pods are sparsely covered in hairs and have a rough texture. But when mature, these brown pods split open and curl back to reveal several (usually 3-7) oval-shaped Olinda seeds. The very distinctive seeds are about 5-7 mm long and 4-5 mm wide. They are bright scarlet-red in colour with a large black spot. Smooth in texture and glossy in appearance, they generally remain on the plant for several months.

Olinda seeds in ancient time were used to measure gold. Olinda is an indigenous plant to Sri Lanka, but not endemic. Though it looks like a nut, the Olinda is also a legume like a pea or bean that splits into two with the seeds attached to one edge. They look beautiful, but many beautiful things can also be dangerous. “The Olinda seeds are also poisonous. They contain a toxin called abrin,” revealed Dr. Siril Wijesundara, head of Botanical Gardens Department. Abrin is deadly toxic, so it is always advisable to keep the attractive seeds away from children who may put them in their mouth.

“But the leaves have a sweet taste and are edible. Even the roots are not poisonous and used in medicine. The Olinda plant is a close relative of medicinal ‘wel mee’,” Dr. Wijesundara said. It grows fast and the birds disperse the seeds around. It can be an invasive in some parts. There is another species in this family called as ‘ela olinda’ – Abrus melanospermus, he adds.

Published on SundayTimes on 10.04.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110410/Plus/plus_06.html

Sakura: Pretty blooms to take away the gloom

April 8, 2011

Disastrous Earthquake, Tsunami and then the nuclear threat has put Japan in a somber mood. But like parents coming to calm a troubled child, the Mother Nature has stepped in bring in a little serenity to the stressed Japanese people last week by bringing in blossoms to their Cherry trees. “Sakura or the cherry blossoms cannot come at a more perfect time than this” sending an email from Tokyo, my Japanese friend Takura communicated. Sakura will indeed be a relief for the eyes of the Japanese that has been witnessing disaster, death and uncertainty since Earthquake and Tsunami a month back.

Cherry blossom viewing season marks the dawn of the spring and is normally among the most anticipated announcements Japan. “We usually go out to parks and every inch of outdoor space in Japan is full of people during Sakura Blooming. But this year, Sakura just reminds us the nature of life; the extreme beauty and quick death” my friend who is also a Buddhist said. Full bloom is usually reached within about one week after the opening of the first blossoms. Another week later, the blooming peak is over and the blossoms are falling from the trees. Sakura flowers started blooming in end March from south of Japan and moves north until May. There is only simplicity, purity and truth, and an undeniably beautiful aspect to the powers of nature. Takura who enjoyed the previous Sakura Seasons said that when the flowers start shedding the petals after a full bloom, it is like a rain coming from a pink cloud. The ground is completely covered by the fallen petals providing a carpet to walk in.

Viewing these flowers sitting under a tree is indeed a meditation that nature brings to soothe the minds. While much attention is focused on the blossoms, the trees themselves have strong characters of their own. These old sentinels stand like philosophers and poets from ancient times, telling how the laws of life apply to the disasters around us. As terrible as it is to lose thousands of flowers in a sudden storm, the tree remains intact, ready to provide new flowers in coming seasons. Even under dark skies or gloomy clouds, the flowers emit a white shade of hope, for all who open their eyes enough to see it around them.

This year’s Sakura blooming is announced on last Monday by the Japanese Meteorological Agency. Japan designates certain Sakura trees for monitoring across the country, and considers a region to be in bloom when at least five or six flowers can be counted on its trees. When 80 percent of the trees’ flowers have opened, an area is officially designated as in “full bloom”. The blooming time of cherry trees differs from year to year depending on the weather and Japan says this season started six days later than last year in Tokyo. The blooming of sakura begins in the warmer south and moves north. Flowers in regions hit hardest by the tsunami are projected to make their appearance in early- to mid-April as per Japanese news reports.

Cherry Blossom viewing is a tradition that started centuries ago in Japan. It is known as Hanami in Japanese that means “flower viewing”. Hanami ritual involves sitting under “sakura” trees and picnicking. “But we do not talk much about cherry blossoms this year due to massive disasters and nuclear problems, which still occupied our daily lives. However, we hope we can enjoy sakura season soon” said Eiko – another Japanese friend lives in Kanayama.

A Cherry Blossom is infact the flower of the Japanese Flowering Cherry Tree known as Sakura. There are several species of Cherry Trees that brings flower grows in that region. In Sri Lanka, Hakgala Botanical Gardens once tried to grow these Flowing Cherries. Recalling his memories, the Director General of the Department of Botanical Gardens Dr.Siril Wijesundara said the Botanical Garden was presented few cherry plants in 1980. The botanists tried to raise the unique trees, but they survived only 2 years – perhaps the weather and soil of Sri Lanka did not suit them.

Most of the public places like parks and sides of the roads in Japan are full of Cherry Trees. So it would be a treat to eyes for those who visit Japan during this period of time. The Sakura flowers really represent Japan and the Japanese see the cherry blossoms as symbolizing the need to go back to basics in life. Even during World War II, the cherry blossom was used to motivate the Japanese people, to stoke nationalism and militarism among the populace. So it is a gift given by the nature for this nation and it will surely help them this time too..!!

Published on SundayTimes on 10.04.2011

Pics show Sakura bloom at Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya and Mt.Fuji with a Sakura tree in full bloom..

Coming to town with the Tree of the Season!

December 26, 2010

Every year, come Christmas time the Vihara Maha Devi Park pavement gets busy with Christmas tree sellers who pop up overnight. Malaka Rodrigo speaks to these vendors from Heeloya, a remote village in Bandarawela, to unveil the hidden story behind these Christmas trees

“Come sir..!! This Tree is about nine feet tall – look at the perfect conical shape, it is a perfect Christmas tree”. Like any other pavement seller, Bandula tried to convince the buyer that the tree he held was worth the money. Realizing it was beyond the buyer’s budget, Bandula showed a smaller tree. After a little bargaining, the tree was sold and a happy customer went home with the tree tied to his car hood, bringing the joy of Christmas to his family.
“It is not easy to sell a Christmas tree these days. Buyers want everything for a cheaper price,” Bandula said, untying another tree to exhibit to his next customer. Along the pavement lay several Christmas trees securely tied around with ropes without damaging the tender branches. Soon he stepped to the side of the road joining several other hawkers trying to sell their Christmas Trees ignoring the drizzle.
Customers checking out the trees

It is the Cypress tree that is being used as Christmas Trees in Sri Lanka, though Pinus trees are popular in other countries. Cypress grows straight with a perfect conical shape making it perfect as a Christmas tree.

They are also long lasting, where a tree can be kept for almost one month after been cut. Cypress has been frequently planted in hedges in the hill country mostly for its beauty. They are also planted in-between some commercial crops and also at places unsuitable for commercial crops.

“People do not know the effort we have to put in to bring these trees to the city,” commented Gunathilake – another tree vendor, who has been bringing Cypress trees to Colombo since the 1970s.

He related an interesting story behind these Christmas trees. All the Christmas trees that are sold near Vihara Maha Devi Park are ‘complete trees’ (not the branches) brought down from a small village called Heel-oya in Bandarawela. Most of the Cypress trees are cultivated to be cut and sold as Christmas trees and others are picked from private gardens and hedges of the hill country. Gunathilake himself owns about half-an acre of Cypress plantation in Heeloya. The trees have to be fertilized and well looked after for about two years until they reach a good height to cut.

Christmas tree thieves

“We also have to guard these trees from thieves,” Gunathilake said. While the vendors are in the city, selling trees cut for this season, the remaining trees are guarded by his family to protect them from Christmas tree thieves. A tree can be kept for about one month without any problem, so they are vulnerable for theft since the first week of December. “We guard our Cypress trees vigilantly since December 1. The remaining one year old trees too are guarded until the 24th,” said Gunathilake explaining it is not an easy process.

Guarding the trees doesn’t stop at Heel-oya. The pavements of Vihara Maha Devi Park too are not free from opportunistic thieves looking for easy money by stealing a couple of trees. “Earlier we had to sleep on these trees to bodily protect them from thieves who wait until we go to sleep to steal them. But things are now improved,” commented Raja – another tree seller who has regularly brought Cypress to town for the past 15 years.

Family business

Most of the sellers near Vihara Maha Devi Park are upcountry farmers who become Christmas tree sellers during the December festive season. Interestingly, all those who sell the trees near Vihara Maha Devi park are from the same Heeloya village in Bandarawela living in the 69B Grama Seva Division under Ella Government Secretariat. More than 50 villagers from the scenic Heeloya village come to Colombo annually, bringing with them Cyprus trees. Some of them are family members too – for example Gunathilake’s elder brother and younger brother both come to town with Cypress during the season.

Two or three sellers usually hire a lorry together, sharing the cost, to bring these trees all the way from Bandarawela. Once they get to Colombo, they literally live with the trees – eating and sleeping at the sales site. They putup tents on beside their trees and live at the mercy of the weather gods. Come December it’s a different way of life for these vendors.

Their trouble doesn’t end with getting the plants ready. To transport the trees, they also need to get a permit from the AGA’s office and the Forest Department. This sometimes takes time and some vendors complain that they need to give tips or ‘santhosam’ on the way at some checkpoints to get the trees released quickly. Permission for the Heel-oya clan to sell their Cypress trees at the Vihara Maha Devi Park was also not initially granted, but authorities later allowed them to stay there under the condition that they looked after the vicinity.

The pricing is usually done according to the height of the tree which can range from four feet to 12 feet. On average a plant exceeds about Rs.1000 totalling all the expenses, according to the vendors. But they complain their market is also diminished by the flooding of artificial Christmas Trees.

Environmental friendly

“Using Cypress trees as Christmas trees are environment friendly as they are biodegradable. That is why I always use a natural tree as a Christmas tree,” – said Chrystopher Fernando – a buyer we met at Vihara Maha Devi park pavement, explaining his preference for the natural Cypress. “It brings a natural feeling to the Christmas – Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a real Christmas tree,” said another buyer.

Some people buy artificial trees for the convenience, but most of the artificial Christmas trees are imported from other countries. “The money spent on these natural Cypress trees from Heeloya will remain in Sri Lanka and will help some Sri Lankan in the process to survive,” said Gunathilaka the 53 year old farmer.

This year they came to Colombo on December 17 and will remain until Christmas Eve. The trees that could not be sold will be left behind while they get back to the village. These vendors are not deterred by the hardships they face. “It is not an easy job – but we will come next season too bringing Christmas to town,” said the Heeloya Christmas tree vendors wishing every one a ‘Merry Christmas’.

Christmas Trees

The Cypress tree that is being used as a Christmas tree in Sri Lanka is known as Califonian Monterey cypress scientifically classified as Cupressus macrocarpa. It is a medium-sized conifer tree that was introduced by the British to Sri Lanka’s hill country. Dr.Siril Wijesundara – the Director General of the Botanical Gardens Department said Cypress was introduced to Sri Lanka as far back as 1880. The Hakgala Botanical Gardens in Nuwara Eliya has very old Cypress trees. The Cypress tree can grow to upto 40m and the trunk can grow to 2.5m diameter.

In other countries many varieties of Pinus or fir trees are used as Christmas trees. In the past, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests, but now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms in many other countries. Internet sources disclose that almost all Christmas trees in the US are grown on Christmas tree farms where they are cut after about ten years of growth and new trees planted.

Published on 26.12.2010 SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/101226/Plus/plus_08.html

Our local ‘roots’ that has gone to COP10

October 19, 2010
Back to roots: Quest for our local Ala – bathala  

October 16 was World Food Day. From Aranayake, Malaka Rodrigo follows an award-winning project which will be presented as a global success story at the UN Summit on Biodiversity (COP10) to be held in Nagoya, Japan this week Jumping over a bamboo gate in Aranayake one day, Damayanthi Godamulla, then a member of a social mobilization project made her way to the home of villager Punchi Appuhami. She was visiting households in Aranayake to promote broiler chicken farms among village folk as a means of livelihood.Damayanthi tried to convince the elderly villager who was in his 90’s of the importance of rearing chicken as a source of nutrition. But Punchi Appuhami was not so keen. “Owa Pawkara weda, Api kapu beepu de enna pennanna” (‘raising chicken for meat is sin, come I’ll show you what we eat’), he said. Leading Damayanthi to his backyard, he showed her the different kinds of ‘wel ala’ – tuber varieties known as yams – that were flourishing there with little attention. There were 17 different varieties of yams in his garden and Punchi Appuhami described their nutritional and medicinal values, surprising Damayanthi with his knowledge. 

Coming from the similar community, Damayanthi immediately realized the potential of these yams to address the nutritional deficiencies of the village folk. During the rest of her social mobilization project she identified other senior villagers like Punchi Appuhami who were still engaged in cultivating traditional roots and tubers. She noticed that among the younger generation, there was little attention paid to these and some varieties were becoming rarer to find. The diversity of the yam varieties was clearly diminishing.

It was against this backdrop, that Damayanthi had later come across a notice on funding opportunities for Biodiversity Projects by the Small Grants programme under UNDP’s Global Environment Facility (GEF). She made a quick project proposal through the Community Development Centre (CDC) she had set up in 1996 to support her own community.

Sri Lanka is a country rich in plant diversity, with a considerable number of edible and non-edible roots and tuber varieties commonly known as ‘yams’ with both indigenous and introduced roots and tuber varieties. The traditional knowledge of the value of these yams is passed on from generation to generation. But with urbanization, this is increasingly being lost and CDC’s project proposal had practical ways to promote the cultivation of yams and hence ensure their conservation. Seeing the potential of the project the UNDP decided to fund it.

This small idea by villagers in Aranayaka has been hailed as an inspiration globally. The roots and tubers conservation programme of the CDC was selected as one of the 25 outstanding winners of the ‘Equator Prize 2008’, bagging its top award. The Sri Lankan project beat other biodiversity programmes in the world demonstrating outstanding work in poverty reduction through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Damayanthi and her colleague Nimal Hewanila, will now present this project as a world success story in preserving biodiversity at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Nagoya this week. “We are happy that we get a chance to make Sri Lanka’s name heard in the international conservation arena,” said Damayanthi.

“It wasn’t easy in the initial stages,” recalls Damayanthi, a CDC directress. Information about yams was traditional knowledge which was communicated from generation to generation by word of mouth and there were no written sources to draw from. The project team started gathering knowledge about the yam varieties from older villagers. “We were amazed by their knowledge. They knew the benefits of different yam varieties which were passed to them by their elders.” For example, the yam known as ‘Hulankeeriya’ is good for stomach ailments; ‘Sewala ala’ is given for pregnant mothers; ‘Kidaram ala’ is good for haemorrhoids; and many other varieties are famous for their high nutritional values.

After collecting the traditional knowledge, the team looked at how to promote cultivation in village gardens. A common problem was the wild boar that has a big appetite for yams. The solution came from the community – to fence off the cultivation areas. Astrological practices were used in setting up these protective fences around the cultivated areas. Villagers believed that would help discourage pest attacks and the CDC too had promoted these traditional customs which built the confidence of the village folk.

One hundred households from ten villages in the Aranayake area were selected for the initial stage of the project. Yams require little attention after planting. The project started with 30 varieties. Some varieties were not commercially viable, but after they heard of their qualities, villagers happily started giving them space in their gardens. The yam project became a success and has now expanded to some 18 villages with the benefits reaching more than 2,000 people. CDC also works in five villages in Dikwella DS division in the Matara district. The villagers are selling the yams, earning a considerable income now.

The team that has identified about 60 varieties of traditional yams are taking measures to conserve them. All these root and tuber plants have unique characteristics including disease resistance and the ability to flourish in less fertile soils. Most of these roots and tubers also have medicinal values and qualities which were identified from time immemorial and passed from generation to generation. “So these indigenous yams should be considered a huge genetic treasure trove,” Nimal Hewanila, a board member of CDC commented.

Traditional knowledge of these varieties also would help in research, and protecting the indigenous yam varieties would help to protect genetic diversity.

The Aranayake community network has also diversified into other traditional food varieties. The Green Leaves project is another such initiative they have begun. “There are about 125 edible green leaves in the country which have different qualities,” Hewanila said.

We worry about the price of bread, but yams are a good alternative. “Yam is the bread of our ancestors, so why not return to it?” asks Damayanthi. Although these traditional roots and tubers were consumed in the past, their role has declined in the recent times. This was a result of the increased cultivation of modern ‘developed’ crop varieties; increased consumption of potatoes and bread consumption, the CDC report states.

Yams can be grown even in small gardens. Different varieties can be harvested at different time durations, so you can plant varieties to get food throughout the year, says Damayanthi. “You can cultivate different varieties getting harvests spread across 12 months,” she says. They don’t need any special attention and at least 10 varieties can be planted in a mere 5 perch plot, she says, urging that they be grown in your backyard.

Quality in 100 g of root/ tuber Type of root/ tuber
Thunmas ala Hingurala Innala Desala Manioc Sweet Potato
Water (g) 73.1 7.6 74.4 7.0 - -
Calories 97.0 97.9 97.0 13.0 145 120
Proteins (g) 3.1 1.3 1.6 2.0 1.2 1.3
Fat (g) 0.1 0.1 0.1 - 0.3 -
Carbohydrates (mg) 21.1 18.1 22.6 26.0 38.1 28.2
Calcium (mg) 40.0 16.0 10.0 25.0 33 34
Phosphorous (mg) 140.0 31.1 40.0 - 40 50
Iron (mg) 1.7 0.5 0.7 1.0 0.7 1.0
Carotene (mcg) 12.0 - 12.0 - - 400
Thiamine (mg) 90.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 0.06 0.10
Ribo (pg) 30.0 30.0 10.0 30.0 03.0 0.05
Thiacene (mg) 0.4 0.4 0.2 1.0 0.03 0.05
Vitamin (mg) - 1.00 17.0 5.0 360 200

http://sundaytimes.lk/101017/Plus/plus_14.html published on SundayTimes on 17.10.2010

Behind the bloom of Hakgala roses

April 18, 2010

Vivid colours and sweet fragrances to keep any visitor spellbound. Come April, the Hakgala Rose Garden in all its glory entrances all and sundry. The process of bringing the rose garden alive with over 100 varieties of roses displaying their beauty for the April season starts in the second week of January and is the result of careful planning and dedicated efforts by Hakgala Botanical Gardens staff.

Around January 15, the Curator of the Hakgala Botanical Gardens, M.M.D.J. Senaratne closes the rose garden to visitors and orders the trimming of the plants. Known as hard-pruning, all rose stems are cut, leaving only a length of about 1-2 feet above the ground. This is to strengthen the roots and stimulate the plant to produce new, strong canes for the roses to bloom in time for the season. Sometimes the plants are temporarily removed from the soil to cut off the dead roots while the soil of the rose-bed is treated with a mixture of cow dung, compost and lime.

About three weeks after pruning, the labourers reshuffle the soil to provide a good air supply to the roots. The reshuffling also helps release the heat that the cow-dung, compost and lime mix generates. After a month, a mix of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus is introduced to the soil to provide nutrients to the plants while some of the rose-buds that appear before April are removed to stop the plants becoming weak.

The first roses of Hakgala which bloom in the first week of April are offered to the Dalada Maligawa with the Curator himself taking the bunch for the pooja in thanksgiving for the success of the pruning as well as to get blessings for the season ahead, making it unique ritual of the Hakgala Gardens.

Twenty per cent of the roses at Hakgala start flowering on April 1, with the rose garden attaining full bloom by mid-April at the height of the Nuwara Eliya season. “Some visitors may wonder whether we are using hormones to get the plants to flower during the season. We never do and even try not to use agro-chemicals,” said Mr. Senaratne, explaining that even pesticides are used only as a last resort. The bugs that eat roses are usually hand removed.

A set of mother plants is maintained in the nursery in case a plant needs to be replaced and new plants are created by grafting the stems from these plants, with budder G.H.W. Jayatissa tending them carefully as he has been doing for over 28 years. The rose garden is what it is due to the efforts of S.B. Tennakoon, Curator of the Hakgala Botanical Gardens in the1960s, who imported the mother plants from England through the British High Commission while designing the new rose garden, it is learnt.

The rose garden was initially designed as a wall clock with its fence made of endemic Rhododendron (ma rath mal) wood. But since maintenance needed lots of these endemic and rare Rhododendron trees to be cut, a chain fence was erected later, recalls the Director-General of the Department of National Botanic Gardens, Dr. Siril Wijesundara who was Hakgala’s Curator in the early 1980s.

Even though visitors may not see roses in January, February or March, it is still beautiful. Dr. Wijesundara recalls how a film crew came in the 1980s at the wrong time to record a song-scene with actress Geetha Kumarasinghe before a backdrop of roses for ‘Salambaka Handuwa’. Initially the crew was disappointed, but the director found the flowerless rose garden beautiful enough to do the shooting. As many as 6,000 – 8,000 enjoy the beauty of the rose garden per day on a busy weekend during the season. Look at the roses, but don’t pluck them or break the stems, is the plea of the workers of Hakgala who tirelessly labour to bring about this wonder.

Ravana’s pleasure garden is 149 years

Legend has it that Hakgala was King Ravana’s pleasure garden where he kept the beautiful Princess Sita whom he had abducted from India. Today the famous Botanical Gardens is located in the same area along the Badulla Road, 9.5 km south-east of Nuwara Eliya. Hakgala is Sri Lanka’s second Botanical Gardens established in 1861 for the experimentation and promotion of Cinchona by Dr. G.H.K. Thwaites who was then Director of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Hakgala was selected because of the similarity of climate and topography of the Andean Mountains in Peru, home of wild Cinchona. Situated at an elevation of about 1745 m above sea level, the Hakgala Botanical Gardens is about 28 hectares in extent.

Published on 18.04.2010 SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/100418/Plus/plus_01.html