Not only the invitation but even the envelope in which it came offered a splash of gentle colour – a beautiful hand-painted sprig of flowers which brightened an otherwise mundane day, creating images of areas not much trodden by human feet. The event too – the launch of the Third Edition of ‘Wild Flowers of [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Bringing back the blooms

The legacy of Dorothy Fernando’s meticulous work lives on as the Third Edition of ‘Wild Flowers of Ceylon’ is launched at the diamond jubilee of its original publication

Not only the invitation but even the envelope in which it came offered a splash of gentle colour – a beautiful hand-painted sprig of flowers which brightened an otherwise mundane day, creating images of areas not much trodden by human feet.

The event too – the launch of the Third Edition of ‘Wild Flowers of Ceylon’ by Dorothy Fernando – held at the Noel & Nora Bartholomeusz Auditorium of the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka, Colombo 7, was simple and elegant. The Third Edition was launched on the diamond jubilee of the original publication in 1954, with the Director-General of the Department of National Botanic Gardens Dr. Siril Wijesundara as chief guest and biodiversity researcher Rohan Pethiyagoda as guest-of-honour.

Wild Flowers plate in yellow

The 85-page hard cover Third Edition includes 20 full-colour plates, clearly giving not only the botanical names but also the common names and details of the localities where the plants may be found, their habitats and flowering time. It has been printed by Monarawila Service Pvt. Ltd., which is under Dorothy’s grandson, Dr. Jayaindra Fernando and wife Thivanshi.

Although Dorothy Fernando is no more, son Malik, who had accompanied her on many a trip in search of flowers, painted an unforgettable picture of her. “Rebellious, adventurous and determined,” had been Dorothy, a perfectionist mindful of the smallest detail.

Sent to a Public School in England to matriculate, explained Dr. Malik, which is the equivalent of today’s Advanced Level, to get into university and study for a profession, she defied her father and made certain she did not matriculate.

Her abiding interest was painting, but she was not allowed to pursue that line. So when she returned to Ceylon, she dabbled in water colours and pastels. Seeing her talent, it had been her brother-in-law, Dr. Ernest Soysa, an orchid grower and prolific writer, who gave her the task of illustrating orchids for his articles and lectures.

“Being a nature lover, my mother’s attention turned to the flowers of the countryside – the wild flowers,” says Dr. Malik.

The more she painted wild flowers, the more captivated she became by their variety and beauty, with the seed of an idea of publishing her paintings in book-form taking hold.

Even though, Dorothy’s husband, Dr. Cyril Fernando, was a successful physician and clubman, he had no time for flowers and painting. Seeing his wife’s enthusiasm, he provided her with a car and driver, making her independent to undertake field trips, with most of the “collection” runs being made from the family holiday home Merriott on Hadden Hill Road in Nuwara Eliya as a base.

Collected personally, all the plants went into a vasculum – a botanist’s collecting case made of tin-plate – that she carried around her neck on a leather strap. Although it caused a lot of amusement within the family when it first arrived, it did its job very well, says Dr.

Dorothy Fernando: Meticulous work

Malik, adding: “Whenever we were on a family trip she would sit with her eyes glued to the passing countryside. ‘Stop,’ she would yell on spotting a splash of colour and driver Thomas would do just that. If she was unable to reach the flower she had spotted I would be asked to pick it. For this service I was rewarded by having the book dedicated to me.”

Soon after collection, she would paint the flowers in their fresh state, usually at Merriott or on the verandah of whatever rest house mother and son were staying at. The paintings were not planned or any pencil sketches done.

“She just picked up the plant in the fingers of her left hand, picked up a brush in the right, mixed some colour and put brush to paper. There were hardly any corrections or going over what had already been done,” reminisces Dr. Malik.

Being a perfectionist she was not satisfied with just painting the beauties of the wild. For identification, they would either be dropped off on the return journey to Colombo at the office of the Systematic Botanist of the Department of Agriculture of Ceylon, J.E. Senaratna who was based at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya or the plant wrapped in damp newspaper shoe-box

At the launch: Dr. Malik Fernando (right) presents the book to Dr. Siril Wijesundara. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

packed would be posted to him.

When the names of the flowers arrived from Peradeniya she would sit for hours poring over the books in her library reading up about them. Her botanical library was accumulated during the time she was writing the book. “Her most treasured item, that I still possess and occasionally use, was a complete set of The Flora of Ceylon by Trimen, Hooker and Alston,” says Dr. Malik, adding that when she had collected enough paintings she set about designing the plates.

These were also done by eye, placing each individual flower in a suitable space and then copying the original painting on to the plate.
West Bros., Mitchum, Surrey printed, produced and published the book in a four-colour printing process that had not been used previously in producing a book of this nature and earned for the company a mention in an annual of the printing trade.
Two plants Dorothy had collected, both included in the book, were new to Sri Lanka and had been identified at Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom.

The legacy of Dorothy’s meticulous work will live on with the launch of the Third Edition of ‘Wild Flowers’ recently.


The book priced at Rs. 3,500 is available at Odel, Barefoot Gallery and Vijitha Yapa bookshops.

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