Homing in on gardens | Daily News

Homing in on gardens

Kandyan dancer
Kandyan dancer

Over the last few months of lockdown, curfews and many changes in the way we live and travel. Let us take a closer look at a new tourism trend and growing interest in the home, botanical, colonial and tropical gardens of Sri Lanka and what they can teach us about life and most important of all staying well.

So, where does the idea of a garden come from and how has it changed over the centuries, from a place where you sourced all your food, to a more western post-industrialisation view of the garden being one of ornamentation and a place to enjoy your free time and clear your head of stress?

Gardens have, over the centuries, ranged from where food is sourced to vibrant tropical jungle gardens like Bevis Bawa's Brief landscaped out of a coconut plantation, to aromatic spice gardens along the coastline, in contrast to the fascinating mountain tea plantations colonial style, spiritual gardens and ancient regal sites. Although garden architecture is all in vogue with everyone being told to only meet outside, the interest in the subject goes back thousands of years, the most influential of the historic gardens in the western world of course were those of the ancient Egyptians, seen in floral decoration on the insides of the ancient tombs, which were later taken to Rome and then exported to England, which is clearly documented in archaeological evidence at sites such as Hadrian’s wall and the remains of the gardens at Fishbourne palace.

Sri Lanka developed some of the finest designed gardens in Asia in the late 5th century, at the rock Palace of Sigriya, with elaborate underwater hydraulics that created the first automated fountains in the world, using the power of rainwater. These stunning water gardens are divided into four sections, which are in one area, rocky with boulders, then elegantly terraced in another, full of spices in a third section, and finally, of equal importance, the kitchen gardens, for making meals for the King.

From living off the bounty of the jungle 2,500 years ago and sourcing food and medicine from it, the Sri Lankan home garden culture evolved and has, for hundreds of years, been the essential component of rural living through out the island, which, owing to the global pandemic, is making a huge revival both in Asia and the rest of the world. Influences during British colonisation have added other layers to the Sri Lankan garden designs and diversified them into more formal, topiary gardens in Nuwara Eliya, which gave way to landscaped green spaces with large flat grassed lawns used for classic British games like croquet and tennis. The next stage of the western garden came after the Reformation, when increasing numbers of landowners enclosed common land to create grand gardens and parks for keeping animals in sight but also at bay so they did not eat all the roses. This 'natural' landscape linked to agriculture gave way to even more formal gardens near the house, sheltered from the outside world by hedges or fences, which ultimately is what garden means in old English, gard, which translates ‘place that is fenced or hedged off’.

Most people in both Sri Lanka and the UK in medieval times knew the sometimes multiple uses of what we now call weeds - for instance, to keep the earth damp by acting as natural shade and, depending on how much you used of a plant, could, like foxgloves, found in the hill country, either in small amounts, cure heart trouble or kill, if ingested in large amounts. The wild plant, Mandragora Officinarum (mandrake), whose root looks uncannily and creepily human, has, over the centuries, been associated with witchcraft, black magic and superstitious practices for which Sri Lanka is still famous. In particular, the human-shaped roots of the plants are often associated with ‘magic rituals’ and continue to be used in contemporary pagan traditions such as Wicca and Odinism. Some people still believe that mandrake plants scream as they are pulled from the ground, and anyone who hears the scream will die instantly - a tale that appears in folk law and a number of children’s stories, including Harry Potter, where Pomona Sprout tells all the students they must wear earmuffs to protect themselves from the mandrakes’ cries. This enigmatic herbaceous plant has played a starring role in medicine, too. Its root is a hallucinogen and narcotic and, in sufficient quantities, has been known to induce a state of unconsciousness.

It was also used as a form of anaesthesia in ancient times by the Kings and in more recent times, was used by monks to treat ailments like ulcers, asthma, and arthritic pain. Some people believed that mandrake could treat melancholy, convulsions and the root of many kinds of spells, although in large doses it can actually cause, rather than stop, delirium. These days mandrake is rarely used in mainstream medicine though it does contain hyoscine, which is the standard pre-operative medication given to sedate patients. It should I might add not be consumed without advice from an expert.

With Covid-19 changing the way we do things, people all over the world have returned to home growing and discovering that even the humble cucumber is tastier if picked straight from the garden.

People are starting to study plants for alternative medicine and using ancient preparations of plants, like lavender, for example, to help them sleep at night and infusions of rosemary to improve memory in the form of an early evening tea. People now, five months into the pandemic that shut the world down in March, look at things differently as they walk around a friend’s garden. Instead of just looking and commenting on the beauty of the plants, they are asking questions like ‘Which country is it from?’, and ‘What can it be used for and how dangerous is it if I pick and cook some?’ Have you ever wondered what stories each plant could tell if they could talk about themselves and where they all came from? Hakgala Botanical Garden created in the late 19th century was originally established to grow medicinal Cinchòna, then tea, and finally over-planted with many tropical species brought from trading with other parts of the world each one with an amazing back story.

A garden with stunning roses and fascinating orchid collections, makes this a must-see garden (when travelling around the island), with its hugely diverse approach to home gardening that takes into account the influences of each location and local weather conditions.

Trees were, amongst other things, also grown to make furniture, like the oak, and toys from the birch, as the wood is so white and clean as well for wooden flooring, as its hard and durable. If you go to the village healer in Sri Lanka, you will discover the art of traditional medicine is integral with the food system, and learn from village elders the secrets to a good immune system, which should really be turned into a book as immunity is now more important than ever before. In studying plants, you can discover the power they have, in casting evil spells, performing witchcraft and in the creation of deadly potions, which are still all part of day-to-day life in remote areas of Sri Lanka. For example, many have committed suicide using a poison, when spurned by a loved one.

Famous writer, Agatha Christie detailed more than 30 potions from her garden in her murder mystery plots, which she described with surprising accuracy, owing to being a pharmacist before becoming a writer and these interests were fuelled by her visits to Sri Lanka and in particular Bevis Bawa’s home Brief.

The more you study nature, the more you realise that everything you need can be found in the wild: natural soaps, perfumes extracted from David Austen roses, cooking oils from sunflowers or rapeseed, berries and nuts for food and a whole lot more. Learn how important wellness and nutritional plants are, if used in sustainable ways, for all to enjoy, eat or learn from, by having a better understanding of the critical roles played by soil organisms, insects and birds, in an increasingly unnatural world, where fertilisers and sprays have badly contaminated the food chain and should be rolled back to protect the overall health and strength of the country.

Many experts think chemicals sprayed on rice crops have had devastating effects on the health of the island. After all, everything matters in the cycle of life, from the infestations of burrowing creepy crawlers, and flying friends, all busy about their jobs of fertilising and aerating the soil; butterflies carrying pollen from flower to flower, and bees creating wild honey stashes, in a cycle that has worked in rhythm with the seasons for thousands of years. Nature is King and farmers putting chemicals on all their crops to increase yields is a hideous mistake, as they destroy insect diversity, which in turn reduces bird diversity and so on.

This vastly reduces cross-pollination and the great diversity of plants we need for the planet to regenerate in the future - key to our long term survival.

The United Nations say a million species of plants and animals are on the extinction list. So, killing Eden right now is among the most serious crimes against all of humanity and the animal kingdom. With the island being cut off from the world, we all have the time to look at this mounting crisis and do something about it starting with your own garden at home. So go on travel and join the plant hunters of old and enrich your life by visiting Sri Lanka’s hugely diverse gardens and so you can understand nature better for your own health, as well as the health of the planet.

While thinking of these land-based issues, consider also the threats of pollutants to our oceans, particularly that of plastic. So try to always book hotels that have embraced organic farming practices and made the hotel ‘home gardens’ central to all their operations, with out door cooking classes, which are an unmissable activity if you are interested in learning about the amazing medicinal benefits of plants, fruits and spices. So, take a break if you can and book a garden tour of the island, including cooking classes in each area you go, so you can learn first hand more about the importance of the home garden.

You can enjoy a experiential home garden tours in hotels with naturalists who will explain the plants back story and you a chance to pluck fruit according to the time of year, and gotukola leaves, which are great for digestion and a natural remedy for killing worms in your gut; cut some Aloe Vera to help with the sun burn, which is great for soothing skin and relieving diabetes; and cinnamon leaf which is thought to improve memory, have anti-cancerous qualities and is used in toothpaste. If you are staying in the Kandy area do include going to to Peradeniya Botanical Garden – a 60 hectare (147 acre) garden, around 5 km west of Kandy’s centre or spend the day exploring the many historic houses and hotel gardens. You can end the day with classic English cream tea in one of the award winning colonial gardens in Nuwara Eliya, known as little England, owing to its iconic British style set against terraced hillsides of tea bushes. Just make sure that you study every garden you visit and learn as much as you can from the elders of the family about the many uses of the plants with which, today, so many people have lost contact with. By making travel your green prescription and gardens and the out doors life your focus of interest, you will soon understand why people are taking a more holistic approach to the way they see the island.

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