Flowering trees in Sri Lanka

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones

Photographs: Margaret Richards

Spathodia Trees

In the lush tropical paradise that is Sri Lanka, there are numerous flowering trees from all over the world growing with great exuberance. One we were particularly interested to see was the beautiful Spathodia campanulata or African flame or tulip tree, which grows in the jungle and reaches almost three times the height of those growing at the Knysna Waterfront. This tree actually originates in tropical Africa but grows well in tropical or semi-tropical areas throughout the world. We were told that the early British managers of tea plantations in Sri Lanka’s hill country planted them near their bungalows as they believed they were a deterrent to mosquitoes! Apparently it was believed that mosquitoes would stick to the nectar of the spectacular orangey-red flowers. Whether this actually was the case or not, it has resulted in this stunning tree brightening the landscape of the tea-growing areas.

Rose of Venezuela

Another foreign flowering tree seen in the Kandy botanical gardens is the Rose of Venezuela (Brownea grandiceps), with its magnificent almost spherical crimson inflorescence. The inflorescence can be up to 20cm wide and hangs from the underside of the main branches. It remains attractive for several weeks, as although the individual flowers only remain open for four days, they open in succession. Surprisingly this tree belongs to the pea and bean family. It grows naturally in the understorey of Amazonian rainforests where it can reach 20 metres in height.

The Pride of Burma (Amherstia nobilis), is another stunning tree, with crimson, orchid-like flowers hanging from a long stalk. This tree is now rare in the wild where it grows in dry evergreen forests. The genus is named after Lady Sarah Amherst (1762-1838), who lived in Calcutta in the 1820s where her husband was Governor-General of Bengal. She is an example of an upper-class English woman who was able to indulge her interest in botany through her position as a diplomatic wife. Incidentally she also had a beautiful multi-coloured Burmese pheasant named after her – Lady Amherst’s pheasant (Chrysolophus amherstiae) which she introduced to Bedfordshire!

Pride of Burma
Cannon ball tree
Cannon ball flower

The curious Canon-ball tree (Couroupita guianensis) originates in the rain forests of Central America. We were warned not to walk under this tree, as its large, round and heavy fruit could cause an injury to innocent passers-by when it suddenly falls to the ground with a loud crash. The large unusual fragrant yellow and pink flowers are very popular as offerings at Buddhist shrines and temples and the trees are often found growing round Buddhist temples in both Sri Lanka and Thailand. Hindus also regard the flowers as sacred and the tree is commonly found growing near Shiva temples in India.

Temple offerings

Several trees are regarded as particularly sacred to Buddhists and will be described in a separate article.