Fiona OgilvieTour Sri Lanka: a piece of serendipity

Sri Lanka was never on my list of gardening destinations. A tiny island off the south east coast of India, the former British colony of Ceylon, it was associated in my mind with cricket and tea but never gardening. Then when I had been working as a Tour Leader for Renaissance Tours for a few years, a friend, John Ekin, persuaded me to consider a tour to Sri Lanka. His great grandfather helped design the harbour at Colombo and John has loved the island for many years, knows it well and has many friends there.

Laundry collection in a resort. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Laundry collection in a resort. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

With his help I spent a wonderful week in Sri Lanka and was delighted to discover it possesses many beautiful gardens and that gardening has been part of its culture for thousands of years.

Much of the country is flat and dry, but in the south it rises to a range of wooded highlands with fertile soil and a wet tropical climate ideally suited to growing more or less anything.

The earliest gardens belonged to royalty, who had the wealth and leisure to create them. Remains of palaces and gardens in the north are well preserved, as are the vast water tanks that were dug by hand to provide water for growing rice, their staple diet.

Sea of Parakrama, near Sigiriya. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Sea of Parakrama, near Sigiriya. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

‘Ayurvedic’ gardens were also cultivated, where plants were grown for herbal medicines. Ayurveda is based on a holistic approach to health and has been an intrinsic part of Sri Lanka’s culture more or less for ever. Sri Lanka’s ayurvedic gardens now make an important contribution to world health, as many pharmaceuticals are plant-based or derived indirectly from plants: think digitalin (foxgloves), aspirin (willow) and quinine (cinchona).

The island’s spices, gems and ivory were hugely attractive to international traders and in 1503 the Portuguese succeeded in colonising the west coast.

Hill country near Nuwara Eliya. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Hill country near Nuwara Eliya. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

They introduced many plants from their earlier expeditions to the New World which soon naturalised, transforming an already rich native flora. Dutch colonists succeeded the Portuguese, though neither left behind any tradition of gardening. As ever, it was the British who set the horticultural ball rolling.

Old railway station at Peradenyia. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Old railway station at Peradenyia. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

After ousting the Dutch and taking over the colony, they created several splendid Botanic Gardens in order to trial commercial crops where they planted magnificent avenues of trees and a wealth of exotic flowering plants. They also made enchanting domestic gardens around their plantation bungalows and clubs, many of which survive in the highland towns of Kandy, Nurawa Eliya and Bandarawela in a time warp of 19th century gardening.

Private garden in Kandy overlooking lake. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Private garden in Kandy overlooking lake. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

There are emerald lawns, glorious roses, huge trees including splendid conifers, clipped topiary and colourful bedding: the Home Counties transported to the tropics. I love them.

Then, excitingly, in the early years of the 20th century two brothers brought a new dimension to Sri Lankan garden design and put it on the international map. Bevis and Geoffrey Bawa were sons of a successful Colombo lawyer. The older, Bevis, tall, good looking and artistic settled on a rubber plantation, Brief (named for one of his father’s legal briefs) when he left school, and began an apprenticeship in estate management.

Elephant reserve near Kandy. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Elephant reserve near Kandy. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

He met other local planters and saw many gardens made in the decorative cottage garden style then becoming fashionable in Britain. Lacking any pressing need to earn a living, he set out to create a garden.

He and a stage designer friend, Arthur van Langenberg, embarked on a theatrical approach, with open spaces linked by meandering paths through the jungle, embellished with sculptures and ceramic pots. The result is magical, a three-pronged, fan-shaped garden flowing down from Bevis’ bungalow home, comprising a cascade, a stone staircase leading to a pool, and a square lawn from which steps descend to a semi-circular ‘moonstone’ within a small court. Behind the house secret courtyards include a ‘mirror’ pool and an open-air bathroom.

Donald Friend statue in Bevis Bawa’s garden, Brief. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Donald Friend statue in Bevis Bawa’s garden, Brief. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Planting is rich and luxuriant, with Sealing Wax Palms and tropical flowering trees, colourful allamandas, bougainvilleas and Beaumontia grandiflora, and ground-covers of bat-plants (Tacca), ferns, gingers, bromeliads and caladiums.

The garden is embellished with splendid sculptures by Donald Friend, who lived at Brief for five years. Bevis was popular and sociable and entertained many famous people at Brief, including Vivian Leigh, Agatha Christie and Donald Friend. His and Arthur’s nursery and landscape consultancy was hugely successful: their garden at Sigiriya Village Hotel still survives.

Courtyard leading to outdoor bathroom at Brief. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Courtyard leading to outdoor bathroom at Brief. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Meanwhile Bevis’ younger brother, Geoffrey took a degree at Cambridge and studied for the Bar, returning to Colombo in 1948 planning to practise law. However he was so thunderstruck by his brother’s achievements at Brief that he bought a nearby plantation, Lunuganga, a broad landscape overlooking the river (ganga in Sinhala) and determined to outshine him with a bigger and better garden.

Part of the house and garden at Geoffrey Bawa’s garden, Lunuganga. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Part of the house and garden at Geoffrey Bawa’s garden, Lunuganga. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Inspired by English and European 18th century landscape gardens as well as Sri Lanka’s ancient boulder gardens and temple parks, Geoffrey based his design around two vistas: across parkland, over water and up to a distant temple north of the house, and down towards the lagoon to the south.

View of the lake at Lunuganga. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

View of the lake at Lunuganga. Photo Fiona Ogilvie

Landscape and buildings are intertwined, using both modern and traditional forms and local materials. There are no flower borders, clever planting combinations or intricate hedges or topiary. Rather, Lunuganga is a tamed jungle of contrasting greens, light and shade, enticing views and a captivating balance of expectation and surprise.

The influence of both brothers can still be seen in the use of design and plants in today’s Sri Lankan gardens.

Join Fiona and Renaissance Tours on a tour of Sri Lanka to see these and many wonderful gardens, in April 2016. Find out more information on Garden Tour Hub – Sri Lanka: Gardens of Paradise

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Fiona Ogilvie

About Fiona Ogilvie

Best known for her widely-read weekly gardening column in The Land, Fiona has been making a garden for many years on her and her husband Bill’s farm near Bathurst. Fiona’s wide range of interests encompasses history and travel, and her love of plants has recently broadened to include tropical plants and gardens. She loves Sri Lanka for its friendly people, extraordinary multicultural heritage, stunning scenery and rich and diverse native flora. This will be Fiona’s second garden tour to Sri Lanka for Renaissance Tours.

2 thoughts on “Tour Sri Lanka: a piece of serendipity

  1. Arno King on said:

    Hello Fiona

    loved your article and it brought back memories of a fantastic visit to Sri Lanka a few months ago.

    You didn’t mention the delicious Sri Lankan food. Just outstanding.

    Lunch at Lunaganga on the front verandah was an absolute highlight, as was climbing the the Lion Rock at Sigiriya. The rock and the gardens below are a must for every gardeners’ ‘bucket list’. We only had a week in Sri Lanka and this was definitely not enough. I will be back as there is so much more to see.

    Arno

    • Hi Arno, thank you, that’s so lovely! I didn’t mention food because I ran out of space, but you are right, every day was a culinary sensation, I was bowled over. So many spices I’d never tasted. My most treasured memory is lunch on the Lunaganga verandah when I was doing the inspection. I sat there gazing at the lake and wondered if I’d actually arrived in heaven. Why don’t you join us? Love to have you along!

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