Sri Lanka offers the garden traveller many gardens to see and visit, from vibrant tropical and jungle gardens, aromatic spice gardens, and palm-studded beaches, to cool mountain tea plantations, and gardens surrounding many spiritual and ancient sites. A highlight for garden lovers are the two gardens of brothers Geoffrey and Bevis Bawa in the south-west.
Garden Travel Guide to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has continuous written history stretching over 2,500 years with many of these ancient civilisations now UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is at a cross roads of ancient and modern sea lanes and was partially occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century, by the Dutch in the 17th century, and then the British. Known then as Ceylon, it became independent in 1948.The name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.
Sri Lanka offers garden travellers vibrant tropical and jungle gardens, aromatic spice gardens, palm-studded beaches, cool mountain tea plantations, and many spiritual and ancient sites.
Climate of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s climate is tropical and warm. Because it lies between 5 and 10 degrees northern latitudes, it has year-round warm weather but is moderated by ocean winds and monsoons.
The average temperature ranges for the west coast around Colombo vary little through the year with daily maximums between 30 and 32 degrees C with overnight minimum around 22C in January 25C in June.
Inland the temperatures are cooler but don’t vary much more – Kandy’s daily maximums are around 18C for much of the year but 22C around April. Night time temperatures are cooler than the coast with overnight minimum around 9C in January but 12C for much of the rest of the year.
The hottest place on the island is the north and north-east – Trincomalee, on the northeast coast has temperatures 2 or 3 degrees C warmer than Colombo on the west coast with highest temperatures from May to September.
The mountains and the southwestern part of the country, known as the “wet zone” receive high rainfall with an annual average of 2500 mm. Most of the southeast, east, and northern parts of the country comprise the “dry zone”, which receives between 1200 and 1900 mm of rain annually.
As with other south and south east Asian maritime countries, Sri Lanka’s climate includes two tropical monsoons: the northeast monsoon (December to March), and the southwest monsoon (June to October). The north east monsoon brings moderately heavy rain to the north east slopes of the central highland area, but the south western monsoon brings very heavy falls in the south west where some areas on the slopes can receive 2,500mm per month!
Between the monsoons the inter-monsoon periods sees variable, sometimes squally, winds and evening thunderstorms, and around October or November can include cyclones. However in most parts of the country the rainfall is very concentrated and the dry zone particularly can be very dry outside the north east monsoon season.
Although the north and north east is called the “dry zone”, visitors will have to be aware that even in the dry zone humidity is usually above 70% and of course can be much higher in the wet zone.
Best time to visit Sri Lanka and its gardens
Sri Lanka is definitely a year-round holiday destination. You just have to know which side of the island you will be on in any given month. Many tour destinations will be in the south and west and the period from November to March is therefore usually the most popular, and busy. But the famed Cultural Triangle is in the dry north and is usually avoided during its monsoon. If you are planning to cover the whole island it may be better visited in one of the shoulder inter-monsoon seasons.
Topography & Natural Vegetation of Sri Lanka
In the middle of the country in the south and central part of Sri Lanka is the rugged Central Highlands which is surrounded by lower plateau.
To the north and east these plateau include rolling hills covered with grasses but to the south and west the drop off the highlands is more dramatic.
Most of the island’s area is in these plains between 30 and 200 meters above sea level but surrounding the whole island is a much lower coastal belt with picturesque sandy beaches and coastal lagoons.
A feature of the geography which surprises most visitors is the proximity to India and how recently that connection was a land bridge. Rama’s Bridge, is a shoal about 38 km long between north western Sri Lanka and southern India. In some places it is barely submerged a metre below the surface.
Although by world standards even the dry zone has a relatively high rainfall it is very seasonal and the natural vegetation has adapted to this annual change from flood to drought.
Much of the ground cover is scrub and low forest, interspersed with tough bushes and cactuses in the driest areas. To save water, trees have thick bark; most have tiny leaves, and some drop their leaves during the hot and dry periods from April to August. At this time the plains in the dry zone are characteristically brown or grey. But in the monsoon months of December to March the vegetation turns into vivid greens and flowers. The dry-land forests include flowering acacias, and the commercially important satinwood, ebony, ironwood, and mahogany.
In the wet zone, the dominant vegetation of the slopes and coastal fringe is a tropical evergreen forest, with tall trees, broad foliage, and a dense undergrowth of vines and creepers. Subtropical evergreen forests which are reminiscent of temperate forests are in the higher altitudes. At the highest altitudes vegetation tends to be stunted and windswept.
Despite clearing for cultivation, about 20% of the land is classified as forests and forest reserves. The largest remnants are in the southwestern interior.
Getting to Sri Lanka and around while you’re there
Unless you are coming from Southern India you will be arriving by air at Colombo (or possibly the brand new, but little used, Hambantota airport). Sixteen different airlines fly regularly into Colombo and it is one of the busier airports in this region.
In the cities tourists will usually use taxis or three wheelers which are cheap and quick. A tourist will have to negotiate the fare but metered three-wheelers have recently been introduced in Colombo.
Most overland travel is by bus but it is slow and can be crowded. Don’t bank on achieving more than about 40 km per hour unless you are on one of the few new E-level Roads.
A self drive rental car is not recommended for anyone unless you are very familiar with the nature of driving found in Sri Lanka.
An alternative which is becoming popular is to hire a private driver with a vehicle, especially when travelling in a small group (2-6 people). The system of private drivers is well developed in Sri Lanka and it is a comfortable and price competitive way to travel outside the cities.
Gardening in Sri Lanka
As most of Sri Lanka enjoys a tropical climate and high humidity, tropical plants such as palms and ferns thrive as do colourful tropicals like anthurium, orchids, begonia and bat flowers.
Gardens to see and visit in Sri Lanka
Gardens to see and visit in Kandy
• Peradeniya Botanical Garden – 60 hectare (147 acre) garden about 5km west of Kandy’s centre. Avenue of Royal Palms, century old Javan fig tree that has spread via aerial roots into a vast 1800sqm canopy, Sri Lankan flora and large cannonball tree. Colourful foliage and flower beds line the paths and night lighting adds even more vivid colour. Large orchid collection.
Gardens to see and visit in Nuwara Eliya (‘Little England’)
• The surrounding landscape features that iconic Sri Lankan topography of steep, terraced hillsides covered with tea plantations.
• Hakgala Botanical Garden – late 19th century garden originally established to grow medicinal Cinchona, then tea, then overplanted with many tropical species. Colourful foliage bedding plants and flower carpets. Interesting topiary and clipping, large rose and orchid collection. Best displays April-June.
Best gardens to see and visit in Dambulla and north
• Sigiriya (Lion Rock) – Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress. The surrounding gardens mostly date from the late 5th century, and feature a long central path, and water gardens in the ancient char bagh form (Persian style divided into four gardens) with symmetrical long, narrow deep pools. The boulder gardens have large rocks joined by winding paths. The terraced gardens were created by brick walls in a roughly concentric shape around the dominant Sigiriya rock.
• Euphoria Spice and Herbal, Matale – spice garden and cooking school
Gardens to see and visit in Colombo, Galle and south west Sri Lanka
• ‘Lunuganga’, Bentota – begun in 1947, former home and garden of lawyer-turned-architect Geoffrey Bawa. Entrance Court, Red Terrace, Water Garden, Yellow Courtyard, Black Pavilion, Broad Walk, Water Gate, Plain of Jars, Southern Terrace, Western Terrace. Entrance fee
• ‘Brief’, Aluthgama – former home and garden of Bevis Bawa (Geoffrey’s brother). Sculptures and art by Donald Friend and Chagall. House is designed to blend with the garden, richly planted tropical hillside garden, jungle-style green-on-green tones but with a wide range of form and textures. Ponds, moon gate, pathways and intimate spaces.
• Colombo Hilton Hotel – large water gardens with waterfalls and tropical plants
• Henarathgoda Botanical Garden – in Gampaha, about 30km north of Colombo, this 17 hectare (43 acre) garden is the site of an old rubber plantation and still has the oldest rubber tree in Sri Lanka. It is near both Willpattu and Ruhunu National Parks and features lowland tropical plant species, a medicinal garden and majestic palm avenues.
• Cinnamon Grand Hotel – water gardens and tropical plants. Lovely views from several restaurants including the Tea Lounge.
• Seethawaka Wet Zone Botanic Gardens – near Avissawella, 59km east of Colombo. Paths wind through tall Terminalia arjuna trees that thrive in this very new wetland zone garden covering 32 hectares (79 acres). Dense tree canopy and large central lake and marshes provide excellent bird watching.
Best gardens in south-eastern Sri Lanka
• Mirijjawila Botanical Garden – a 120 hectare (300 acre garden) near Hambantota. A fairly new garden established in 2006 to conserve endangered Sri Lankan arid and dry zone plants.