A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 6



In the central province of Ceylon. and at a height of fifteen hundred feet above the sea. stands the capital, formerly the residence of the kings of the island, the famous town of Kandy; and only a few miles away from it is a small town, which was also, for a short time, a royal residence five centuries ago. At this place the English Government made a botanical garden in 1819, and Dr. Gardner was the first director. His successor. the late Dr. Thwaites, the very meritorious compiler of the first "Flora Zeylanica," for thirty years did all he could to improve and carry out the purpose of this garden in a manner worthy of its advantages of climate and position. When he retired a year or two before his death, Dr. Henry Trimen was appointed director; and from him, immediately on my arrival, I received a most friendly invitation. I accepted it all the more gladly because in Europe I had already read and heard much of the marvels of plant-life at Peradenia. Nor were my high anticipations disappointed. If Ceylon is a paradise for every botanist and lover of flowers, then Peradenia deserves to be called the very heart of Paradise.

Peradenia and Kandy are connected with Colombo by a railway, the first made in Ceylon; the journey occupying from first to last between four and five hours. I started from Colombo at seven in the morning of the 4th of December, and reached Peradenia at about eleven. Like all Europeans in Ceylon, I found I must travel in the first-class - not noblesse but whiteness oblige. The second-class is used only by the yellow and tawny burgers and half-breeds, the descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch; the third-class, of course, carries the natives, the dark Cinghalese and the nearly black Tamils. The only wonder to me is that there is not a fourth for these last, and a fifth for the despised low-caste Hindoos. The natives are always great patrons of railway travelling; it is the only pleasure on which they are prepared to spend money, all the more so as it is a cheap one. Directly after the railway was opened, the natives began travelling by the wonderful road every day and all day long, for the mere pleasure of it. The carriages are airy and light; the first-class well provided with protection against the heat, with wide eaves and venetian blinds. The engine-drivers and the guards, in their white clothes with sola helmets, are Englishmen. The line is worked with order and punctuality, like all the English railways.

The first two hours' ride from Colombo to Peradenia lies across a level country, most of it covered with marshy jungle, varied by ricefields and water-meadows. In these herds of black buffaloes lie half in the water, while graceful white herons pick the insects off their backs; farther on the line gradually approaches the hills, and after Rambukkana station begins to work upwards. For an hour, between this and the next station Kaduganawa, the line is in point of scenery one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The road winds with many zigzags up the steep northern face of a vast basin or cirque. At first the eye is fascinated by the changing aspect of the immediate foreground: immense blocks of gneiss stand up amid the luxuriant masses of dense forest which fill the ravines on each side; creepers of the loveliest species fling themselves from one tree-top to the next, as they tower above the undergrowth; enchanting little cascades tumble down the cliffs, and close by the railroad we often come upon the old high-road from Colombo to Kandy, formerly so busy a scene, which was constructed by the English Government, to enable them to keep possession of the ancient capital.

Further on we command wider views, now of the vast park-like valley which grows below us as we mount higher, and now of the lofty blue mountain range which stands up calm and proud beyond its southern wall. Although the forms of the higher hills are monotonous and not particularly picturesque - for the most part low, undulating shoulders of granite and gneiss - still a few more prominent peaks rise conspicuous; as for instance the curious table rock known as the "Bible Rock." "Sensation Rock," as it is called, is one of the most striking and impressive features of the scenery. The railway, after passing through several tunnels, here runs under overhanging rocks along the very edge of a cliff, with a fall of from twelve to fourteen hundred feet, almost perpendicular, into the verdurous abyss below. Dashing waterfalls come foaming down from the mountain wall on the left, rush under the bridges over which the line is carried, and, throwing themselves with a mighty leap into mid air, are lost in mist before they reach the bottom of the gorge, making floating rainbows where the sun falls upon them.

The green depths below, and the valley at our feet, are covered partly with jungle and partly with cultivation; scattered huts, gardens, and terraced rice-fields can be discerned. The lofty head of the talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera), the proud queen of the tribe in Ceylon, towers above the scrub on every side. Its trunk is perfectly straight and white, like a slender marble column, and often more than a hundred feet high. Each of the fans that compose its crown of leaves covers a semicircle of from twelve to sixteen feet radius, a surface of 15O to 200 square feet; and they, like every part of the plant, have their uses, particularly for thatching roofs; but they are more famous because they were formerly used exclusively instead of paper by the Cinghalese, and even now often serve this purpose. The ancient Puskola manuscripts in the Buddha monasteries are all written with an iron stylus on this "Ola" paper, made of narrow strips of talipot leaves boiled and then dried. The proud talipot palm flowers but once in its life, usually between its fiftieth and eightieth year. The tall pyramidal spike of bloom rises immediately above the sheaf of leaves to a height of thirty or forty feet, and is composed of myriads of small yellowish-white blossoms; as soon as the nuts are ripe the tree dies. By a happy accident an unusual number of talipot palms were in flower at the time of my visit; I counted sixty between Rambukkana and Kaduganawa, and above a hundred in my whole journey. Excursions are frequently made to this point from Colombo, to see the strange and magnificent scene.

The railroad, like the old high-road, is at its highest level above the sea at the Kaduganawa pass, and a light-house-shaped column stands here in memory of the engineer of the carriage road, Captain Dawson. We here are on the dividing ridge of two watersheds. All the hundred little streams which we have hitherto passed, threading their silver way through the velvet verdure of the valley, flow either to the Kdany Ganga or to the Maha-Oya, both reaching the sea on the western coast. The brooks which tumble from the eastern shoulder of Kaduganawa all join the Mahavelli Ganga, which flows southwards not far below. This is the largest river in the island, being about 134 miles long, and it enters the sea on the cast coast, near Trincomalee. The railway runs along its banks, which are crowded with plantations of sugar-cane, and in a quarter of an hour from the pass we reach Peradenia. the last station before Kandy.

When I arrived, at about eleven o'clock, I found Dr. Trimen waiting for me; he welcomed me most kindly, and drove me in his carriage to the Botanical Garden, which is about a mile distant. Immediately in front of it, the foaming river is spanned by a fine bridge, built of satin wood, in one arch of more than eight hundred feet across. Under ordinary circumstances, the crown of the bridge is seventy feet above the level of the river, but an idea may be formed of the enormous mass of water which collects after heavy rains in the water-courses of Ceylon, when we learn that the river rises here sometimes as much as fifty or sixty feet, leaving no more than ten feet between the surface and the arch of the bridge.

The entrance to the garden is through a fine avenue of old indiarubber trees (Ficus elastica). This is the same as the Indian species, of which the milky juice when inspissated become caoutchouc, and of which young plants are frequently grown in sitting-rooms in our cold northern climate, for the sake of the bright polished green of its oval leathery leaves. But while with us these indiarubber plants are greatly admired when their inch-thick stems reach the ceiling, and their rare branches bear fifty leaves. more or less, in the hot moisture of their native land they attain the size of a noble forest tree. worthy to compare with our oaks. An enormous crown of thousands of leaves growing on horizontal boughs, spreading forty to fifty feet on every side, covers a surface as wide as a good-sized mansion, and the base of the trunk throws out a circle of roots often from one hundred to two hundred feet in diameter, more than the whole height of the tree. These very remarkable roots generally consist of twenty or thirty main roots, thrown out from strongly marked ribs in the lower part of the trunk, and spreading like huge creeping snakes over the surface of the soil. The indiarubber tree is indeed called the "Snake tree" by the natives. and has been compared by poets to Laocoon entwined by serpents. Very often, however, the roots grow up from the ground like strong upright poles, and so form stout props, enabling the parent tree to defy all storms unmoved. The spaces between these props form perfect little rooms or sentry-boxes, in which a man can stand upright and be hidden. These pillar-roots are developed here in many other gigantic trees of very different families.

I had scarcely exhausted my surprise at this avenue of snake trees, when, exactly in the middle, beyond the entrance of the gate, my eye was caught by another wonderful sight. An immense bouquet there greets the visitor - a clump of all the palms indigenous to the island together with many foreign members of this noblest growth of the tropics; all wreathed with flowering creepers, and their trunks covered with graceful parasitical ferns. Another, but even larger and finer group of palms, stood further on at the end of the entrance avenue, and was, moreover, surrounded by a splendid parterre of flowering-plants. The path here divided, that to the left leading to the director's bungalow, situated on a slight rise. This inviting home is, like most of the villa residences in Ceylon, a low one-storied building, surrounded by an airy verandah, with a projecting roof supported on light white columns. Both pillars and roof are covered with garlands of the loveliest climbers; large-flowered orchids, fragrant vanilla, splendid fuchsias, and other brilliant blossoms, and a choice collection of flowering plants and ferns decorate the beds which lie near the house. Above it wave the shadowy boughs of the finest Indian trees, and numbers of butterflies and chafers, lizards and birds animate the beautiful spot. I was especially delighted with the small barred squirrels (Sciurus tristriatus), which looked particularly pretty here, though they are common and very tame in all the gardens of Ceylon.

As the bungalow stands on the highest point of the gardens, and a broad velvet lawn slopes down from it, the open hall of the verandah commands a view of a large portion of the garden, with a few of the finest groups, as well as the belt of tall trees which enclose the planted land. Beyond this park-like ground rise the wooded heads of the mountains which guard the basin of Peradenia. The beautiful Mahavelli river flows round the garden in a wide reach, and divides it from the hill country. Thus it lies in a horseshoe-shaped peninsula; on the landward side, where it opens into the valley of Kandy, it is effectually protected by a high and impenetrable thicket of bamboo, mixed with a chevaux-defrise of thorny rattan palms and other creepers. The climate, too, is extraordinarily favourable to vegetation; at a height of fifteen hundred feet above the sea, the tropical heat of the mountain basin, combined with the heavy rainfall on the neighbouring mountains, make of Peradenia an admirable natural forcing-house, and it can easily be conceived how lavishly the tropical flora here displays its wonderful productive powers.

My first walk through the garden in the company of the accomplished director convinced me that this was in fact the case, and although I had heard and read much of the charms of the prodigal vegetation of the tropics, and longed and dreamed of seeing them, still the actual enjoyment of the fabulous reality far exceeded my highest expectations, even after I had already made acquaintance with the more conspicuous forms of this southern flora at and near Colombo and Bombay. During the four days I was so happy as to spend at Peradenia I made greater strides in my purview of life and nature in the vegetable world than I could have made at home by the most diligent study in so many months. Indeed, when, two months later, I visited Peradenia for the second  and, alas! for the last - time and spent three more happy days in that paradise, it enchanted me to the full as much when I quitted it as it had at the first glance; only I saw it with wider understanding and increased knowledge. I cannot sufficiently thank my excellent friend Dr. Trimen for his kind hospitality and valuable instruction; the seven days I spent in his delightful bungalow were indeed to me seven days of creation.

At the time when I was at Peradenia another English botanist was staying there, Dr. Marshall Ward, under his official title "Royal Cryptogamist." He had studied chiefly in Germany, and had been sent out to Ceylon two years previously to investigate the terrible coffee-leaf disease - a fungus attacking the leaves of the coffee shrub - which has raged now for many years with increasing severity in the coffee-plantations of Ceylon, destroying this valuable produce throughout extensive tracts and wasting enormous sums of the nation's money. Dr. Ward instituted a series of interesting observations and experiments on this fungus, and elaborately investigated this microscopic structure (Hemileja vastatrix), which somewhat resembles rust in corn; he has not, however, succeeded in finding any effectual cure. As the reward of his labours he has been sharply attacked in the papers, particularly by some of the coffee growers; as though anyone of the hundreds of botanists who have turned their most careful attention to the investigation of such fungus-epidemics had always succeeded, even with the most complete knowledge of the malady, in prescribing a remedy. On the contrary, it is well known that this is scarcely ever the case. Of all the foolish ideas which we hear repeated every day in our "educated circles," undoubtedly one of the most foolish is that "there is a remedy for every disease." The experienced physician or naturalist who is familiar with the facts, knows that the remedies are very few, and only marvels when he finds a specific against anyone disease - such as quinine in cases of fever.

It would carry me too far, and only fatigue the reader, if I were to venture on an attempt, vain without the help of pictures, to give him any idea of the botanical paradise of Peradenia; indeed, the numerous sketches, in pencil and colour, which I made there would be no adequate help. I must therefore confine myself to a few general remarks and descriptions of the more important and typical plants. Peradenia differs widely in one respect from most of our European botanical gardens, for, instead of displaying the plants in formal beds, drawn up like soldiers in lines and companies, the whole plan of the garden, which is about a hundred and fifty acres in extent, is park-like and calculated for pleasing and characteristic effect as well as for scientific instruction. The principal groups of trees, with such families of plants as are allied to them, are elegantly arranged on fine lawns, and good paths lead from one to another. The less ornamental nursery-beds are placed in a less conspicuous situation, with plots for growing and selecting useful plants. Almost every kind of useful vegetable of the tropics and of both hemispheres is here represented, and seeds, fruits, and cuttings are distributed to planters and gardeners throughout the island. The garden has thus for several years vindicated its practical utility, and has done good service both as a centre for botanical observations and a garden of acclimatization.

The extraordinarily favourable climate and position of Peradenia especially fit it, however, for more extensive use from a scientific point of view as a botanical station. In the same way as our young zoologists find the recently established zoological stations on the sea-coast (at Naples, Roscoff, Brighton, Trieste, etc.) of inestimable value for their deeper scientific studies and experiments, a year's residence at such a botanical station as Peradenia would give a young botanist more experience and work than he could obtain in ten years under the various unfavourable conditions at home. Hitherto, less has been done in the tropical zone than elsewhere for such establishments for study and experiment, though they would be exceptionally beneficial. If the English Government would establish and maintain such a station for botany at Peradenia, and one for zoology at Galle - in the charming bungalow, for instance, belonging to Captain Bayley, which is admirably suited to such a purpose - they would be doing signal service to science, as they have already done by the Challenger Expedition and other great undertakings - and once more put to shame the great continental states of Europe, who spend their money chiefly on breech-loaders and big guns.

I must now briefly speak of some at least of the chief marvels of Peradenia, and I cannot but begin with the famous giant bamboos, the wonder of all who behold them. If on entering the garden we turn to the left towards the river and follow its beautiful bank, we see from afar enormous green thickets of bamboo, more than a hundred feet high and as many wide, bending their mighty crowns, like the huge waving plumes of some giant's helmet, over the river and the path, bestowing shade and coolness on both. As we go nearer we see that each of these bushes consists of several - often of sixty to eighty - tall cylindrical stems, each from a foot to two feet thick. They grow closely crowded together, thrown up from a common root like the creeping stem of a rush, spreading towards the top, and bearing on their frail lateral stems a dense mass of slender green leaves. And these giants are nothing more than grass! Their huge hollow stems are divided by knots like those of all the grasses; but the leaf-sheath, which in our fragile grasses is a filmy scale at the base of the leaf, is in the great bamboo a strong woody curved plate, which without any further ceremony might serve as a breastplate to cover the chest of a well-grown man: a child of three can stand inside one section of the main stem. The bamboo, as everyone knows, is one of the most valuable plants of the tropics. A whole book might be written on no other subject than the various uses made of every part of this plant by the natives, as of every part of the various kinds of palm.

Next to the bamboo - or even before it - the palms are, indeed, what attract our attention on every side. Besides the indigenous species, all represented here by magnificent specimens, we find a number of other palms- some natives of the mainland of India, some from the Sunda Isles and Australia, some from Africa and tropical America; as, for instance, Livistonia, from China, with its enormous crown of fan-shaped leaves; the celebrated Lodoicea of the Seychelles, with its colossal spreading leaves; Elais, the oil-palm of Guinea, the feathery leaves of which grow to an enormous length; Mauritia, from the Brazils; Oreodoxa, the proud king-palm of Havannah, etc. I had already admired and sketched a noble specimen of Oreodoxa in Teneriffe in 1866, and was greatly surprised here to find a whole avenue of these trees.

Not less interesting were the splendid clumps of thorny climbing palms, or rattans (Calamus), with their graceful waving plumes. Their stems, which, though not thicker than a finger, are extremely tough and elastic, creep to the top of the tallest trees and attain a length of from two hundred to three hundred feet; the longest stems, perhaps, of any plant known.

But, as the proverb says, "Man may not walk under the palms and never rue it!" While I was wandering enchanted through the tall grass by the river under the tall crown of an oil-palm, and carefully tracing the convolutions of a climbing rattan, I suddenly felt a sharp nip in my leg, and on baring it discovered a few small leeches which had attached themselves firmly to the calf, and saw at the same time half a dozen more of the nimble little wretches mounting my boot with surprising rapidity, like so many caterpillars. This was my first acquaintance with the much-to-be-execrated land-leeches of Ceylon, one of the intolerable curses of this beautiful island, of all its plagues the worst, as I was afterwards to learn by much suffering. This species of leech (Hirudo Ceylanica) is one of the smallest of its family, but at the same time the most unpleasant. Excepting near the sea and in the highest mountains, they swarm in myriads in every wood and bush; and in some of the forests, particularly near the river banks, and in the marshy jungle of the highlands and the lower hills, it is impossible to take a single step without being attacked by them. Not only do they creep along the ground seeking what they may devour - they are on every bush and tree, from which they frequently drop on to the head or neck of the passer-by, while they always creep up his legs; nay, they can even spring to reach their victim. When they have sucked their fill they are about as large as an ordinary leech; but, when fasting, they are no thicker than a thread and scarcely more than half an inch long. They wriggle through the elastic texture of a stocking with the greatest rapidity. Often the bite is felt at the time, but as often it is not. Once at an evening party I first became aware of a leech by seeing a red streak of blood running down my white trousers.

To be rid of the leech a drop of lemon-juice suffices, and for this purpose, when you walk out in Ceylon, you always put a small lemon in your pocket. I often used instead a drop of the carbolic acid, or spirit I carried about for preserving small animal specimens. The result of the bite is very different with different persons. Those who have a tender skin - and I am unfortunately one of them - feel a painful throbbing in the wound for some days, and a more or less disagreeable inflammation of the surrounding skin. As the leeches always by preference attack these inflamed and irritated spots with fresh bites, the wound by constant aggravation often becomes so serious as to be even dangerous. When the English seized Kandy in 1815, they had to toil for weeks through the dense jungle of the damp hill country, and they lost a great many men from the incessant attacks of the swarms of leeches. In neighbourhoods which are most infested by them the Europeans wear leech-gaiters, as they are called, as a protection - high overalls of indiarubber, or of some very thick material, which cover the shoes and are secured above the knees. I protected myself in the jungle by painting a ring of carbolic acid round above my high hunting-boots, and this line the leeches never crossed. In some parts of the island, however, the swarms of leeches make any long stay almost impossible, as do the ticks (Ixodes) in some other places.

Another terrible nuisance in the garden of Peradenia, as in all parts of the island where there is much water, were the clouds of mosquitoes and stinging flies. There are, of course, mosquito curtains to every bed. But far more dangerous than these annoying insects are the poisonous scorpions and millipedes, of which I have collected some splendid specimens - scorpions six inches, and millipedes a foot long.

One of the loveliest spots in Peradenia is the fernery. Under the dim shade of tall trees on the cool shore of a sparkling stream is a collection of ferns of every kind, large and small, fragile and robust, herbaceous and treelike. It is impossible to dream of anything more lovely and graceful. All the charm of form which distinguishes even our own native ferns with their feathery fronds, is here displayed in infinite variety, from the simplest to the most elaborately compound; and while, on the one hand, some of the minutest species of ferns are hardly to be distinguished from a delicate moss, the tall tree-ferns, bearing a fine tuft of feathery leaves at the top of their slender black stems, reach the stately height of a palm tree.

Besides the ferns, we find the Cycadeae well represented at Peradenia, as well as the elegant Selaginellae, of which there is a fine collection of all the most interesting forms, from the most delicate moss-like species to the robust and bushy growths which almost resemble the extinct arborescent Lycopodiae of the Carboniferous period. Indeed, many of the plant-groups in this garden reminded me of the fossil flora of earlier geological ages, as represented by Meyer in his ingenious reconstructions of the scenery of the primaeval world. A botanist can here study all the characteristic families of the flora of the tropics through their most interesting and remarkable representatives.

Finally, to mention two features of the scene which especially struck me, there were, first, the climbing plants or lianas, and, secondly, the banyans. Although creeping and climbing plants are to be seen all over the island in the greatest abundance and variety, the garden at Peradenia can show a few splendid separate specimens, such as are rarely to be met with - as, for instance, gigantic stems of Vitis, Cissus, Purtada, Bignonia, Ficus, etc.; and one or two examples of banyan (Ficus indica) with enormous aerial roots, and some allied species of fig (Ficus galaxifera etc.), were among the largest and finest trees I saw anywhere in Ceylon.

One of the oldest of these sacred figs, with an enormous roof of branches supported by numerous pillar-props, was a really wonderful sight; it had lost a great portion of its foliage, and its bare boughs looked as if they were covered with large hanging brown fruit. What was my astonishment as I went up to it to see some of these brown fruits detach themselves and fly away! They were large flying-foxes (Pteropus), belonging to that curious group of frugivorous bats which are peculiar to the tropics of the old world - Asia and Africa. A few well-aimed shots brought down half a dozen, on which the whole swarm of several hundreds left their hold and flew away screaming loudly. Those I had hit and had not killed outright fought violently with their sharp teeth and curved claws, and it took some trouble to master them with the help of a hunting knife. These "flying-foxes," or "flying-dogs," are very like a fox in shape, size, and colour, particularly about the head; but their limbs, like those of all the bat tribe, are connected by an elastic web, by means of which they fly about very quickly and accurately. Their flight, however, is not at all like that of our bats, and has more resemblance to that of a crow. The flying foxes live on fruit and do great mischief. They have a particular preference for the sweet palm-wine, and they are often found in the morning - not infrequently drunk  in the vessels which the Cinghalese place at night in the palm-crowns to catch the flowing sap. This predilection may no doubt be amply accouated for by the near affinity of the bats to apes - as proved by their phylogenetic pedigree - and through apes to men.

In the foxy-red fur of the flying-foxes I found a large parasitic insect (Nycteribia), of a strange spider-like form, belonging to the group of Pupipara.*11 These, like the flea, are really Diptera, or two-winged insects, which, in consequence of their parasitical mode of life, have lost the use of their wings, which have then become abortive. The larvae are developed inside the mother to such a stage that immediately on being released they enter the pupa state and are very soon fully developed. The large Nycteribia of the flying-fox ran with great swiftness over the body of its host and over my hand when I endeavoured to catch the specimens; then it hastily crept under my clothes, or attached itself to my skin with its hook-like legs.

I was destined to make another interesting and somewhat dangerous discovery this same day. In the afternoon, when heavy rain had set in, just as I was putting an enormous black centipede into spirits, a large apectacled snake, the much dreaded cobra di capello, Naja tripudians, glided into my bedroom through the open door from the garden. I had not observed it, though it had come to within about a foot of me, and was first made aware of its presence by my man's loud cries of "Cobra, cobra!" With his assistance I had soon mastered the beautiful reptile, which was about three feet and a half long, and it found its last home in a keg of spitits, to which a very curious snake-like amphibian, the Calcilia or blind snake, had already been consigned.

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