Anyone who knows me well knows that much as I love nature until very recently I was fairly clueless about which bird is on that tree over here or which butterfly is mud pooling over there or which flower is blooming right in front of me. It is the many books published by nature lovers and experts and the guidance of close friends that makes me recognize the call of a jungle fowl, the designs on the wings of a butterfly, the flight pattern of a sea eagle and the tracks of a leopard.
This is why it is rather fortuitous that Arittha Wikramanayake’s book Wild Flowers of Sri Lanka has arrived just in time for me this year. It is far different from his first book Butterflies of Sri Lanka which to date remains one of my favourite nature/coffee table books. This book is more serious. It is weighty in every sense of the word and it is the real thing.
How many of us have seen the most beautiful flowers while driving around this abundant country and wondered what they were? This is the book that will enlighten you. A journey of seven years has finally brought Arittha to the point of seeing his book published and in print. Chock full of beautiful photographs taken by himself and painstakingly described, you have to only admire the commitment and dedication the project demanded from this full time corporate lawyer. He even went to the extent of scanning the leaves of the flowers and reproducing them in the book, so that identification is comprehensive and complete.
In addition the book is replete with interesting and sometimes entertaining information. For example, the Asteraceae which got its name from Aster meaning star in Greek, has many myths and stories surrounding the name. Scattered stardust, Indian maidens in love and flowers with magical properties are some of them. Or consider the story of the Asclepiadaceae (I have to warn you that flower families have tongue twister names) or the Milkweed family which tells of the murder of the ancient Greek god of healing by Zeus for not letting people die. But the most fascinating explanation however, is for the Solanaceae or the Nightshade flower. Apparently the plant has hallucinogenic properties and was once thought to be responsible for the myth of witches flying on broomsticks. An ointment containing Atropa and hyosyamus was rubbed on the broomsticks and when the witches ‘rode’ the brooms they thought they experienced the sensation of flying! Now how weird is that?
It is a book that you cannot rush through. Each page carefully designed by Nelun Harasgama and her team is the happy balance of knowledge and beauty. Each category of flowers is listed with their characteristics, origins, location, and its uses. One of the things that amazed me was that almost all the plants and flowers that exist are used for alternative medicinal purposes which also highlights how advanced we are in naturopathy which is steeped in our daily life. The book is meticulous in its listing of the scientific name of the flower, the common English name, and the Sinhala and Tamil name. The Glossary and Index reveal the thorough detail that has gone into this book.
Perhaps I may have wished the book to be smaller in size, so that I could carry it around and identify any flowers I come across in the wild. But perhaps I should think of it more as a wonderfully illustrated encyclopedia than a field guide. This book is a must have in schools, libraries and a staple in any collector’s library. And further it will be a brilliant Christmas present.