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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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