Royal bloom from Lanka graces Chelsea Flower Show

By Megara Tegal, Pix by Gemunu Wellage and Athula Devapriya

It was a passion which culminated in a meeting and a cordial chat with royalty. Not only his passion but also his fascination with orchids led to horticulturist L.S. Wanigatunga meeting none other than the Queen of England recently.

"The Queen herself is interested in flowers. For the few minutes that we spoke she asked intelligent questions about the flowers at our stand, which showed that she's knowledgeable on the subject and has a deep interest in flower," said Mr. Wanigatunga.
Mr. Wanigatunga makes a point to the queen.

How did such a rare opportunity present itself to this renowned horticulturist who has been gifted with a green thumb? It followed a request by the Sri Lankan Bureau of Tourism (SLBT) to Mr. Wanigatunga that he display the beautiful orchids he has nurtured and fostered here in Sri Lanka at the Sri Lankan stall at the most prestigious flower show in the world -- the Chelsea Flower Show in May.

Mr. Wanigatunga not only agreed but also came up with the idea of naming a flower after Queen Elizabeth II, to bring some publicity for Sri Lanka and boost tourism. His choice of flower for the Queen was a deep purple hybrid, with prominent veins along the petals – the exquisite Dendribiom Queen Elizabeth II.

But you can’t just name a flower after the Queen, explains Mr. Wanigatunga who had to first seek approval and registration from the Horticultural Society of England (HSE).

“Registration across the world is done at the HSE which means that any other hybrids from the same parent plants will be filed under the registered name,” Mr. Wanigatunga said, adding that “no two hybrids are the same, like no two siblings look the splitting image of each other. For the production of a particular hybrid, its tissue has to be cultured.”

Acknowledging that he has produced about 2,000 hybrids, he says that he names only the ones that are outstanding. “The first hybrid I named after my wife who passed away two years ago. It was registered as Dendrobium Tilly Wanigatunga and that was in the early 80’s. What’s interesting about this flower is that it has been about 30 years since I cultured it, but it still blooms, which is uncharacteristic of hybrids because their lifespan is typically three to five years,” he says.

Contrary to what his vast knowledge indicates, Mr. Wanigatunga is a self-taught horticulturist. In fact, he is a double graduate in physics and mathematics from the Peradeniya University and in textile technology from the Bombay University.
The many orchids growing in Mr. Wanigatunga’s backyard cum nursery

Mr. Wanigatunga was approached by the SLBT because apart from being knowledgeable about orchids, he also grows these flowers to assist the less-fortunate womenfolk in villages,by giving them employment, as well as to ensure that orchids are available all-year round. “We’ve been growing orchids commercially for about 50 years but we still don’t export them. When a buyer asks for a supply of flowers he usually expects a minimum of about 5,000 a week.

However, this is difficult to meet with the climate changes. Flowering ideally needs dry weather as rains can endanger the flowers,” he says, adding that it is fortunate that Sri Lanka has different climatic conditions across the country. “My plan was to set up a project which would employ about 25 village women from different districts as a means to provide them with an income. This would also ensure there are enough orchids for both the local and export markets.”

With the help of an old acquaintance, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, his project, begun in 2007 has reached only two villages. “It should have been in full-swing in several districts by now, but the present economic crisis is impeding its progress,” he says.

In addition to the two villages, Mr. Wanigatunga's own backyard has been converted into a nursery.

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