A botanical treasure that grew in the Gardens | Print edition

As the Peradeniya Botanical Garden celebrates its bicentenary this year, Dr AH Magdon Jayasuriya examines the role of the National Herbarium therein

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The National Herbarium building complex set in the picturesque setting of Peradeniya Gardens

A herbarium is where you will find a collection of preserved plant specimens for research into plant life and diversity. These dried specimens are mounted on durable stiff sheets of paper, systematically classified and stored in special cabinets similar to books in a library. Stored separately are tissue materials such as flowers, bulbils, underground parts, eg rhizomes, bulbs and tubers preserved in liquid and dried samples of wood and large fruits.

A herbarium is also accompanied by a library of books and periodicals on plant taxonomy, species diversity, maps, hand-drawn illustrations and paintings, photographs, and sometimes microfilm.

Located in the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya, the National Herbarium is housed in a complex of buildings consisting of three classic 19th century buildings and another more recent building forming a quadrangular complex equipped with facilities for researchers, students and other authorized visitors. The herbarium has about 180,000 mounted specimens while the library contains about 4,000 books and periodicals and some 5,000 botanical illustrations. The collection is currently digitized and also printed in volumes and made available for purchase.

Ancient history

The history of the National Herbarium is intimately linked to the development of the Botanical Garden. First established in 1810 at Slave Island, Colombo, under Sir Joseph Banks and named Kew, with William Kerr, a former Kew gardener as superintendent, it was moved to Kalutara in 1813 as the Colombo site lacked space sufficient. Here, in an abandoned sugar cane plantation in Uggalboda, it was possible to grow economical plants on a larger scale. With the establishment of British rule in 1815, the Garden was moved to its final destination Peradeniya in 1821, under the supervision of Kerr’s successor, Alexander Moon, of similar training but better qualified.

Plant specimens collected and/or recorded by Moon, from Kalutara, Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna etc., became the core of the Herbarium.

Moon’s great literary energy and unique dedication to science and education were evident in his monumental publication, ‘Ceylon Plant Catalog’ published in 1824 by the Wesleyan Missionary Press in Colombo. Primarily in Sinhalese with translation assisted by Reverend B. Clough, it was aimed at local readers as well as English readers. It is structured on the scientific and natural system of classification of plants essentially based on the reproductive organs (Linnean or Sexual System):

GHK Thwaites

The list of plants included 1,127 species including 366 species grown in the gardens of Peradeniya.

Complete with references, a descriptive catalog of plant names and indices, it is considered the earliest and most comprehensive account of the island’s plant biodiversity published in Sinhalese (and also in English).

Botanical drawings

Another of Moon’s contributions was the 1818 appointment of Haramanis de Alwis Seneviratne of Kalutara as a “native writer”. Haramanis displayed an extraordinary talent for botanical drawing and, with the establishment of the Botanical Gardens in 1822 at Peradeniya, was promoted to draftsman. From 1823, he produced a splendid series of drawings of the flora of the country and the plants cultivated in the Gardens. Moon died in 1825, but Haramanis continued to illustrate plant species until his retirement in 1861, aged 70. Many of his drawings were done in the field, exploring verdant jungles, almost all in color.

Henry Trimen

This tradition was continued until 1900 by Haramanis’ sons, William and George. Appointed Director of the Gardens in 1849, George Henry Kendrick Thwaites oversaw and added many detailed floral designs made by dissecting flowers to the original collection. William de Alwis Seneviratne’s son also produced over 1000 color illustrations of Sri Lankan mushrooms, including mushrooms. The originals of these drawings – 412 paintings, mostly drawn by William de Alwis (1842-1916), are in the Horticultural Research and Development Institute (HORDI) of the Department of Agriculture, Gannoruwa, with duplicates at Kew Herbarium in England. The formidable collection made by Haramanis of Alwis Seneviratne and his sons consists of more than 5000 color illustrations and about 2000 pencil sketches preserved in the National Herbarium.

Garden growth
and Herbarium

James Macrae, who arrived two years after Moon’s death but died in 1830, was a notable contributor of botanical specimens to the Herbarium. Robert Wight’s visit in 1836 from India saw the scientific identification of the herbarium specimens as the entire Peradeniya herbarium was packed up and sent to Wight (its size at the time would not have been big).

Macrae was followed by George Gardner, the first botanist, distinct from the horticulturist in charge of Peradeniya, who also assiduously collected botanical specimens.

A drawing by Haramanis Seneviratne

The growth of the herbarium became the monumental work of George Henry Kendrick Thwaites. An efficient scientist, he developed the consultation process with Europe, notably Kew and notably with Sir Joseph Hooker, possibly sending duplicate specimens for identification. Thwaites Enumeration Plantarum Zeylaniae (1858) was based on scientifically advanced concepts. Many new genera and species have been discovered, described and added to the flora of the island consisting of a total of 2822 species.

Henry Trimen, director from 1880 to 1896, added a reasonable collection to the herbarium, but his most important contribution was The Handbook of the Flora of Ceylon (1893-1900) – one of the most complete and outstanding publications of any comparable tropical area at that time. Trimen had only completed three volumes when he died in 1896, and the last two volumes were completed by JD Hooker. John Christopher Willis succeeded Trimen as director in 1896, establishing the Department of Agriculture in 1912.

Among those who added specimens to the herbarium was J. Miguel Silva, a plant collector under Trimen for 20 years, even after Trimen’s death in 1896. A special addition to taxonomic literature in the early 20th century was the publication in 1931 by AHG Alston (Systematic Botanist, Department of Agriculture) which served as a Supplement (Volume 5) to Trimen’s Handbook of the Flora of Ceylon, update of the previous five volumes by Trimen, later completed by JD Hooker.

TB Worthington’s private collection of specimens and photographs of many native and introduced tree species in the 1940s to 1950s at his home (Hill Crest), Kandy served as the basis for his book ‘Trees of Ceylon’, a useful guide to the tree flora of the island.

Other notable collections were made by KDL Amaratunga and DMA Jayaweera who contributed Orchidaceae and Apostasiaceae to the Revised Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon. The writer also made a significant contribution of specimens (nearly 11,000).

The largest addition in the 20th century (about 60,000 specimens) was collected by scientists (64 authors from 27 different institutions around the world, including Sri Lanka, collaborating with the Flora of Ceylan project initiated in 1968 under the auspices from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Department of Agriculture and the University of Peradeniya and continued in the 1990s by the British Overseas Development Administration.The end result was the publication of the Revised Handbook of the Flora of Ceylon, 15 volumes published between 1980 and 2006, grouping flowering plants, ferns and allied ferns.

(The author is Principal Consultant, EML Consultants (Pvt) Ltd., and former Curator of the National Herbarium)

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