10: Chapter X
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Among the inexperienced there is a prevalent idea connected with
tropical forests and jungles that they teem with wild fruits,
which Nature is supposed to produce spontaneously. Nothing can
be more erroneous than such an opinion; even edible berries are
scantily supplied by the wild shrubs and trees, and these, in
lieu of others of superior quality, are sometimes dignified by
the name of fruit.
The guava and the katumbillé are certainly very numerous
throughout the Ouva district; the latter being a dark red,
rough-skinned kind of plum, the size of a greengage, but free
from stone. It grows upon a thorny bush about fifteen feet high;
but the fruit is too acid to please most palates; the extreme
thirst produced by a day's shooting in a burning sun makes it
refreshing when plucked from the tree; but it does not aspire to
the honor of a place at a table, where it can only appear in the
form of red currant jelly, for which it is an undeniable
Excellent blackberries and a very large and full-flavored black
raspberry grow at Newera Ellia; likewise the Cape gooseberry,
which is of the genus "solanum." The latter is a round yellow
berry, the size of a cherry; this is enclosed in a loose bladder,
which forms an outer covering. The flavor is highly aromatic,
but, like most Ceylon wild fruits, it is too acid.
The sweetest and the best of the jungle productions is the
"morra." This is a berry about the size of a small nutmeg, which
grows in clusters upon a large tree of rich dark foliage. The
exterior of the berry is brown and slightly rough; the skin, or
rather the case, is brittle and of the consistence of an
egg-shell; this, when broken and peeled off, exposes a
semi-transparent pulp, like a skinned grape in appearance and in
flavor. It is extremely juicy but, unfortunately, a large black
stone occupies the centre and at least one-half of the bulk of
the entire fruit.
The jambo apple is a beautiful fruit in appearance being the
facsimile of a snow-white pear formed of wax, with a pink blush
upon one side. Its exterior beauty is all that it can boast of,
as the fruit itself is vapid and tasteless. In fact, all wild
fruits are, for the most part, great exaggerations. I have seen
in a work on Ceylon the miserable little acid berry of the
rattan, which is no larger than a currant, described as a fruit;
hawthorn berries might, with equal justice, be classed among the
fruits of Great Britain.
I will not attempt to describe these paltry productions in
detail; there is necessarily a great variety throughout the
island, but their insignificance does not entitle them to a
description which would raise them far above their real merit.
It is nevertheless most useful to a sportsman in Ceylon to
possess a sufficient stock of botanical information for his
personal convenience. A man may be lost in the jungles or hard
up for provisions in some out-of-the-way place, where, if he has
only a saucepan, he can generally procure something eatable in
the way of herbs. It is not to be supposed, however, that he
would succeed in making a good dinner; the reader may at any time
procure something similar in England by restricting himself to
nettle-tops - an economical but not a fattening vegetable.
Anything, however simple, is better than an empty stomach, and
when the latter is positively empty it is wonderful how the
appetite welcomes the most miserable fare.
At Newera Ellia the jungles would always produce a supply for a
soupe maigré. There is an esculent nillho which grows in the
forest in the bottoms of the swampy ravines. This is a most
succulent plant, which grows to the height or length of about
seven feet, as its great weight keeps it close to the ground. It
is so brittle that it snaps like a cucumber when struck by a
stick, and it bears a delicate, dark-blue blossom. When stewed,
it is as tender as the vegetable marrow, but its flavor
approaches more closely to that of the cucumber. Wild ginger
also abounds in the forests. This is a coarse variety of the
"amomum zintgiber." The leaves, which spring from the ground,
attain a height of seven or eight feet; a large, crimson, fleshy
blossom also springs from the ground in the centre of the
surrounding leaf-stems. The root is coarse, large, but wanting
in fine flavor, although the young tubers are exceedingly tender
and delicate. This is the favorite food of elephants on the
Ceylon mountains; but it is a curious fact that they invariably
reject the leaves, which any one would suppose would be their
choicest morsel, as they are both succulent and plentiful. The
elephants simply use them as a handle for tearing up the roots,
which they bite off and devour, throwing the leaves on one side.
The wild parsnip is also indigenous to the plains on the
mountains. As usual with most wild plants of this class, it has
little or no root, but runs to leaf. The seeds are very highly
flavored, and are gathered by the natives for their curries.
There is, likewise, a beautiful orchidaceous plant, which is very
common throughout the patinas on the mountains, and which
produces the very finest quality of arrowroot. So much is this
valued in the Nepaul country in India, that I have been assured
by a person well acquainted with that locality, that this
quality of arrowroot is usually sold for its weight in rupees.
In vain have I explained this to the Cingalese; they will not
attempt its preparation because their fathers did not eat it; and
yet these same men will walk forty miles to cut a bundle of
sticks of the galla gaha tree for driving buffaloes! -their
fathers did this, and therefore they do it. Thus this beautiful
plant is only appreciated by those whose instinct leads them to
its discovery. The wild hogs plough up the patinas and revel in
this delicate food. The plant itself is almost lost in the rank
herbage of the patinas, but its beautiful pink, hyacinth-shaped
blossom attracts immediate attention. Few plants combine beauty
of appearance, scent and utility, but this is the perfection of
each quality -nothing can surpass the delicacy and richness of
its perfume. It has two small bulbs about an inch below the
surface of the earth, and these, when broken, exhibit a highly
granulated texture, semi-transparent like half-boiled sago. From
these bulbs the arrowroot is produced by pounding them in water
and drying the precipitated farina in the sun.
There are several beautiful varieties of orchidaceous plants upon
the mountains; among others, several species of the dendrobium.
Its rich yellow flowers hang in clusters from a withered tree,
the only sign of life upon a giant trunk decayed, like a wreath
upon a grave. The scent of this flower is well known as most
delicious; one plant will perfume a large room.
There is one variety of this tribe in the neighborhood of Newera
Ellia, which is certainly unknown in English collections. It
blossoms in April; the flowers are a bright lilac, and I could
lay my band upon it at any time, as I have never seen it but in
one spot, where it flourishes in profusion. This is about
fourteen miles from Newera Ellia, and I have never yet collected
a specimen, as I have invariably been out hunting whenever I have
met with it.
The black pepper is also indigenous throughout Ceylon. At
Newera Ellia the leaves of this vine are highly pungent, although
at this elevation it does not produce fruit. A very short
distance toward a lower elevation effects a marked change, as
within seven miles it fruits in great perfection.
At a similar altitude, the wild nutmeg is very common throughout
the forests. This fruit is a perfect anomaly. The tree is
entirely different to that of the cultivated species. The latter
is small, seldom exceeding the size of an apple-tree, and bearing
a light green myrtle-shaped leaf, which is not larger than that
of a peach. The wild species, on the contrary, is a large forest
tree, with leaves equal in size to those of the horse chestnut;
nevertheless, it produces a perfect nutmeg. There is the outer
rind of fleshy texture, like an unripe peach; enclosed within is
the nutlike shell, enveloped in the crimson network of mace, and
within the shell is the nutmeg itself. All this is perfect
enough, but, alas, the grand desideratum is wanting - it has no
flavor or aroma whatever.
It is a gross imposition on the part of Nature; a most stingy
trick upon the public, and a regular do. The mace has no taste
whatever, and the nutmeg has simply a highly acrid and pungent
taste, without any spicy flavor, but merely abounding in a rank
and disagreeable oil. The latter is so plentiful that I am
astonished it has not been experimented upon, especially by the
natives, who are great adepts in expressing oils from many
Those most common in Ceylon are the cocoa-nut and gingerly oils.
The former is one of the grand staple commodities of the island;
the latter is the produce of a small grain, grown exclusively by
But, in addition to these, there are various other oils
manufactured by the Cingalese. These are the cinnamon oil,
castor oil, margosse oil, mee oil, kenar oil, meeheeria oil; and
both clove and lemon-grass oil are prepared by Europeans.
The first, which is the cinnamon oil, is more properly a kind of
vegetable wax, being of the consistence of stearine. This is
prepared from the berries of the cinnamon shrubs which are boiled
in water until the catty substance or so-called oil, floats upon
the surface; this is then skimmed off and, when a sufficient
quantity is collected, it is boiled down until all watery
particles are evaporated, and the melted fat is turned out into a
shallow vessel to cool. It has a pleasant, though , perhaps, a
rather faint aromatic smell, and is very delicious as an adjunct
in the culinary art. In addition to this it possesses gentle
aperient properties, which render it particularly wholesome.
Castor oil is also obtained by the natives by boiling, and it is
accordingly excessively rank after long keeping. The castor-oil
plant is a perfect weed throughout Ceylon, being one of the few
useful shrubs that will flourish in such poor soil without
Margosse oil is extracted from the fruit of a tree of that name.
It has an extremely fetid and disagreeable smell, which will
effectually prevent the contact of flies or any other insect. On
this account it is a valuable preventive to the attacks of flies
upon open wounds, in addition to which it possesses powerful
Mee oil is obtained from the fruit of the mee tree. This fruit
is about the size of an apricot, and is extremely rich in its
produce; but the oil is of a coarse description, and is simply
used by the natives for their rude lamps. Kenar oil and
meeheeria oil are equally coarse, and are quite unfit for any but
Lemon-grass oil, which is known in commerce as citronella oil, is
a delightful extract from the rank lemon grass, which covers most
of' the hillsides in the more open districts of Ceylon. An
infusion of the grass is subsequently distilled; the oil is then
discovered on the surface. This is remarkably pure, with a most
pungent aroma. If rubbed upon the skin, it will prevent the
attacks of insects while its perfume remains; but the oil is so
volatile that the scent quickly evaporates and the spell is
Clove oil is extracted from the leaves of the cinnamon tree, and
not from cloves, as its name would imply. The process is very
similar to that employed in the manufacture of citronella oil.
Cinnamon is indigenous throughout the jungles of Ceylon. Even at
the high elevation of Newera Ellia, it is one of the most common
woods, and it grows to the dimensions of a forest tree, the trunk
being usually about three feet in circumference. At Newera Ellia
it loses much of its fine flavor, although it is still highly
This tree flourishes in a white quartz sandy soil, and in its
cultivated state is never allowed to exceed the dimensions of a
bush, being pruned down close to the ground every year. This
system of close cutting induces the growth of a large number of
shoots, in the same manner that withes are produced in England.
Every twelve months these shoots attain the length of six or
seven feet, and the thickness of a man's finger. In the interim,
the only cultivation required is repeated cleaning. The whole
plantation is cut down at the proper period, and the sticks are
then stripped of their bark by the peelers. These men are called
"chalias," and their labor is confined to this particular branch.
The season being over, they pass the remaining portion of the
year in idleness, their earnings during one crop being sufficient
to supply their trifling wants until the ensuing harvest.
Their practice in this employment naturally renders them
particularly expert, and in far less time than is occupied in the
description they run a sharp knife longitudinally along a stick,
and at once divest it of the bark. On the following day the
strips of bark are scraped so as entirely to remove the outer
cuticle. One strip is then laid within the other, which, upon
becoming dry, contract, and form a series of enclosed pipes. It
is subsequently packed in bales, and carefully sewed up in double
sacks for exportation.
The essential oil of cinnamon is usually made from the refuse of
the crop; but the quantity produced, in proportion to the weight
of cinnamon, is exceedingly small, being about five ounces of oil
to half a hundred-weight of the spice.
Although the cinnamon appears to require no more than a common
quartz sand for its production, it is always cultivated with the
greatest success where the subsoil is light, dry and of a loamy
The appearance of the surface soil is frequently very deceitful.
It is not uncommon to see a forest of magnificent trees growing
in soil of apparently pure sand, which will not even produce the
underwood with which Ceylon forests are generally choked. In such
an instance the appearance of the trees is unusually grand as
their whole length and dimensions are exposed to view, and their
uniting crowns throw a sombre shade over the barren ground
beneath. It is not to be supposed that these mighty specimens of
vegetation are supported by the poor sandy soil upon the surface;
their tap-roots strike down into some richer stratum, from which
their nourishment is derived.
These forests are not common in Ceylon; their rarity accordingly
enhances their beauty. The largest English oak would be a mere
pigmy among the giants of these wilds, whose stature is so
wonderful that the eye never becomes tired of admiration. Often
have I halted on my journey to ride around and admire the
prodigious height and girth of these trees. Their beautiful
proportions render them the more striking; there are no gnarled
and knotty stems, such as we are accustomed to admire in the
ancient oaks and beeches of England, but every trunk rises like a
mast from the earth, perfectly free from branches for ninety or a
hundred feet, straight as an arrow, each tree forming a dark
pillar to support its share of the rich canopy above, which
constitutes a roof perfectly impervious to the sun. It is
difficult to guess the actual height of these forest trees; but I
have frequently noticed that it is impossible to shoot a bird on
the higher branches with No. 5 shot.
It is much to be regretted that the want of the means of
transport renders the timber of these forests perfectly
valueless. From age to age these magnificent trees remain in
their undisturbed solitudes, gradually increasing in their
apparently endless growth, and towering above the dark vistas of
everlasting silence. No on can imagine the utter stillness which
pervades these gloomy shades. There is a mysterious effect
produced by the total absence of animal life. In the depths of
these forests I have stood and listened for some sound until my
cars tingled with overstrained attention; not a chirp of a bird,
not the hum of an insect, but the mouth of Nature is sealed. Not
a breath of air has rustled a leaf, not even a falling fruit has
broken the spell of silence; the undying verdure, the freshness
of each tree, even in its mysterious age, create an idea of
eternal vegetation, and the silvery yet dim light adds to the
charm of the fairylike solitude which gradually steals over the
I have ridden for fifteen or twenty miles through one of these
forests without hearing a sound, except that of my horse's hoof
occasionally striking against a root. Neither beast nor bird is
to be seen except upon the verge. The former has no food upon
such barren ground; and the latter can find no berries, as the
earth is sunless and free from vegetation. Not even monkeys are
to be seen, although the trees must produce fruit and seed.
Everything appears to have deserted the country, and to have
yielded it as the sole territory of Nature on a stupendous scale.
The creepers lie serpent-like along the ground to the thickness
of a man's waist, and, rearing their twisted forms on high, they
climb the loftiest trees, hanging in festoons from stern to stem
like the cables of a line-of-battle-ship, and extending from tree
to tree for many hundred yards; now felling to the earth and
striking a fresh root; then, with increased energy, remounting
the largest trunks, and forming a labyrinth of twisted ropes
along the ceiling of the forest. From these creepers hang the
sabre-beans. Everything seems on a supernatural scale - the
bean-pod four feet or more in length, by three inches in breadth;
the beans two inches in diameter.
Here may be seen the most valuable woods of Ceylon. The ebony
grows in great perfection and large quantity. This tree is at
once distinguished from the surrounding stems by its smaller
diameter and its sooty trunk. The bark is crisp, jet black, and
has the appearance of being charred. Beneath the bark the wood
is perfectly white until the heart is reached, which is the fine
black ebony of commerce. Here also, equally immovable, the
calamander is growing, neglected and unknown. This is the most
esteemed of all Ceylon woods, and it is so rare that it realizes
a fancy price. It is something similar to the finest walnut, the
color being a rich hazel brown, mottled and striped with
irregular black marks. It is superior to walnut in the extreme
closeness of the grain and the richness of its color.
There are upward of eighty different woods produced in Ceylon,
which are made use of for various purposes; but of these many are
very inferior. Those most appreciated are-
Calamander, Ebony, chiefly used for furniture and cabinet work.
Satin-wood, Suria (the tulip tree). Tamarind. Jackwood.
Halmileel. Cocoa-nut. Palmyra.
The suria is an elegant tree, bearing a beautiful yellow blossom
something similar to a tulip, from which it derives its name.
The wood is of an extremely close texture and of a reddish-brown
color. It is exceedingly tough, and it is chiefly used for
making the spokes of wheels.
The tamarind is a fine, dark red wood, mottled with black marks;
but it is not in general use, as the tree is too valuable to be
felled for the sake of its timber. This is one of the handsomest
trees of the tropics, growing to a very large size, the branches
widely spreading, something like the cedars of Lebanon.
Jackwood is a coarse imitation of mahogany, and is used for a
variety of purposes, especially for making cheap furniture. The
latter is not only economical, but exceedingly durable, and is
manufactured at so low a rate that a moderate-sized house might
be entirely furnished with it for a hundred and fifty pounds.
The fruit of the jack grows from the trunk and branches of the
tree, and when ripe it weighs about twenty pounds. The rind is
rough, and when cut it exposes a yellow, pulpy mass. This is
formed of an infinite number of separate divisions of fleshy
matter, which severally enclose an oval nut. The latter are very
good when roasted, having a close resemblance to a chestnut. The
pulp, which is the real fruit, is not usually eaten by Europeans
on account of its peculiar odor. This perfume is rather
difficult to describe, but when a rainy day in London crams an
omnibus with well-soaked and steaming multitudes, the atmosphere
in the vehicle somewhat approaches to the smell of the
jack-fruit. The halmileel is one of the most durable and useful
woods in Ceylon, and is almost the only kind that is thoroughly
adapted for making staves for casks. Of late years the great
increase of the oil-trade has brought this wood into general
request, consequent upon the increased demand for casks. So
extensive and general is the present demand for this wood that
the natives are continually occupied in conveying it from certain
districts which a few years ago were utterly neglected.
Unfortunately, the want of roads and the means of transport
confine their operations to the banks of rivers, down which the
logs are floated at the proper season.
I recollect some eight years ago crossing the Mahawelli river
upon a raft which my coolies had hastily constructed, and
reaching a miserable village near Monampitya, in the extreme
north of the Veddah country. The river is here about four
hundred paces wide, and, in the rainy season a fine volume of
water rolls along in a rapid stream toward Trincomalee, at which
place it meets the sea. I was struck it the time with the
magnificent timber in the forests on its banks, and no less
surprised that with the natural facilities of transport it should
be neglected. Two years ago I crossed at this same spot, and I
remarked the wonderful change which a steady demand had effected
in this wild country. Extensive piles of halmileel logs were
collected along the banks of the river, while the forests were
strewed with felled trees in preparation for floating down the
stream. A regular demand usually ensures a regular supply, which
could not be better exemplified than in this case.
Among fancy woods the bread-fruit tree should not be omitted.
This is something similar to the jack, but, like the tamarind,
the value of the produce saves the tree from destruction.
This tree does not attain a very large size, but its growth is
exceedingly regular and the foliage peculiarly rich and
plentiful. The fruit is something similar in appearance to a
small, unripe jack-fruit, with an equally rough exterior. In the
opinion of most who have tasted it, its virtues have been grossly
exaggerated. To my taste it is perfectly uneatable, unless fried
in thin slices with butter; it is even then a bad imitation of
fried potatoes. The bark of this tree produces a strong fibre,
and a kind of very adhesive pitch is also produced by decoction.
The cocoa-nut and palmyra woods at once introduce us to the palms
of Ceylon, the most useful and the most elegant class in
vegetation. For upward of a hundred and twenty miles along the
western and southern coasts of Ceylon, one continuous line of
cocoa-nut groves wave their green leaves to the sea-breeze,
without a single break, except where some broad clear river
cleaves the line of verdure as it meets the sea.
Ceylon is rich in palms, including the following varieties: The
Cocoa-nut. The Palmyra. The Kittool. The Areca The Date. The
Sago. The Talipot.
The wonderful productions of this tribe can only be appreciated
by those who thoroughly understand the habits and necessities of
the natives; and, upon examination, it will be seen that Nature
has opened wide her bountiful hand, and in the midst of a barren
soil she has still remembered and supplied the wants of the
As the stream issued from the rock in the wilderness, to the
cocoa-nut tree yields a pure draught from a dry and barren land;
a cup of water to the temperate and thirsty traveler; a cup of
cream from the pressed kernel; a cup of refreshing and sparkling
toddy to the early riser; a cup of arrack to the hardened
spirit-drinker, and a cup of oil, by the light of which I now
extol its merits-five separate and distinct liquids from the same
A green or unripe cocoa-nut contains about a pint of a sweetish
water. In the hottest weather this is deliciously cool, in
comparison to the heat of the atmosphere.
The ripe nut, when scraped into a pulp by a little serrated,
semi-circular iron instrument, is squeezed in a cloth by the
hand, and about a quarter of a pint of delicious thick cream,
highly flavored by cocoa-nut, is then expressed. This forms the
chief ingredient in a Cingalese curry, from which it entirely
derives its richness and fine flavor.
The toddy is the sap which would nourish and fructify the blossom
and young nuts, were it allowed to accomplish its duties. The
toddy-drawer binds into one rod the numerous shoots, which are
garnished with embryo nuts, and he then cuts off the ends,
leaving an abrupt and brush-like termination. Beneath this he
secures an earthen chatty, which will hold about a gallon. This
remains undisturbed for twenty-four hours, from sunrise to
sunrise on the following morning; the toddy-drawer then reascends
the tree, and lowers he chatty by a line to an assistant below,
who empties the contents into a larger vessel, and the chatty is
replaced under the productive branch, which continues to yield
for about a month.
When first drawn the toddy has the appearance of thin milk and
water, with a combined flavor of milk and soda-water, with a
tinge of cocoa-nut. It is then very pleasant and refreshing, but
in a few hours after sunrise a great charts takes place, and the
rapidity of the transition from the vinous to the acetous
fermentation is so great that by midday it resembles a poor and
rather acid cider. It now possesses intoxicating properties, and
the natives accordingly indulge in it to some extent; but from
its flavor and decided acidity I should have thought the stomach
would be affected some time before the head.
>From this fermented toddy the arrack is procured by simple
This spirit, to my taste, is more palatable than most distilled
liquors, having a very decided and peculiar flavor. It is a
little fiery when new, but as water soon quenches fire, it is not
spared by the native retailers, whose arrack would be of a most
innocent character were it not for their infamous addition of
stupefying drugs and hot peppers.
The toddy contains a large proportion of saccharine, without
which the vinous fermentation could not take place. This is
procured by evaporation in boiling, on the same principle that
sugar is produced from cane-juice. The syrup is then poured into
small saucers to cool, and it shortly assumes the consistence of
hardened sugar. This is known in Ceylon as "jaggery," and is
manufactured exclusively by the natives.
Cocoa-nut oil is now one of the greatest exports of Ceylon, and
within the last few years the trade has increased to an
unprecedented extent. In the two years of 1849 and 1850, the
exports of cocoa-nut oil did not exceed four hundred and
forty-three thousand six hundred gallons, while in the year 1853
they had increased to one million thirty-three thousand nine
hundred gallons; the trade being more than quadrupled in three
The manufacture of the oil is most simple. The kernel is taken
from the nut, and being divided, it is exposed to the sun until
all the watery particles are evaporated. The kernel thus dried
is known as "copperah." This is then pressed in a mill, and the
oil flows into a reservoir.
This oil, although clear and limpid in the tropics, hardens to
the consistence of lard at any temperature below 72 Fahrenheit.
Thus it requires a second preparation on its arrival in England.
There it is spread upon mats (formed of coir) to the thickness of
an inch, and then covered by a similar protection. These fat
sandwiches are two feet square, and being piled one upon the
other to a height of about six feet in an hydraulic press, are
subjected to a pressure of some hundred tons. This disengages
the pure oleaginous parts from the more insoluble portions, and
the fat residue, being increased in hardness by its extra
density, is mixed with stearine, and by a variety of
preparations is converted into candles. The pure oil thus
expressed is that known in the shops as cocoa-nut oil.
The cultivation of the cocoa-nut tree is now carried to a great
extent, both by natives and Europeans; by the former it is grown
for a variety of purposes, but by the latter its profits are
confined to oil, coir and poonac. The latter is the refuse Of
the nut after the oil has been expressed, and corresponds in its
uses to the linseed-oil cake of England, being chiefly employed
for fattening cattle, pigs and poultry.
The preparation of coir is a dirty and offensive occupation. The
husk of the cocoa-nut is thrown into tanks of water, until the
woody or pithy matter is loosened by fermentation from the coir
fibre. The stench of putrid vegetable matter arising from these
heaps must be highly deleterious. Subsequently the husks are
beaten and the fibre is separated and dried. Coir rope is useful
on account of its durability and power of resisting decay during
long immersion. In the year 1853, twenty-three hundred and
eighty tons of coir were exported from Ceylon.
The great drawback to the commencement of a cocoa-nut plantation
is the total uncertainty of the probable alteration in the price
of oil during the interval of eleven years which must elapse
before the estate comes into bearing. In this era of invention,
when improvements in every branch of science follow each other
with such rapid strides, it is always a dangerous speculation to
make any outlay that will remain so long invested without
producing a return. Who can be so presumptuous as to predict the
changes of future years? Oil may have ceased to be the common
medium of light - our rooms may be illumined by electricity, or
from fifty other sources which now are never dreamed of. In the
mean time, the annual outlay during eleven years is an additional
incubus upon the prime cost of the plantation, which, at the
expiration of this term, may be reduced to one-tenth of its
The cocoa-nut tree requires a sandy and well-drained soil; and
although it flourishes where no other tree will grow, it welcomes
a soil of a richer quality and produces fruit in proportion.
Eighty nuts per annum are about the average income from a healthy
tree in full bearing, but this, of course, depends much upon the
locality. This palm delights in the sea-breeze, and never attains
the same perfection inland that it does in the vicinity of the
coast. There are several varieties, and that which is considered
superior is the yellow species, called the "king cocoanut." I
have seen this on the Maldive Islands in great perfection. There
it is the prevailing description.
At the Seychelles, there is a variety peculiar to those islands,
differing entirely in appearance from the common cocoa-nut. It
is fully twice the size, and is shaped like a kidney that is laid
open. This is called by the French the "coco de mer" from the
large numbers that are found floating in the sea in the
neighborhood of the islands.
The wood of the cocoa-nut tree is strong and durable; it is a
dark brown, traversed by longitudinal black lines.
There are three varieties of toddy-producing palms in Ceylon;
these are the cocoa-nut, the kittool and the palmyra. The latter
produces the finest quality of jaggery. This cannot be easily
distinguished from crumbled sugar-candy which it exactly
resembles in flavor, The wood of the palmyra is something similar
to the cocoa-nut, but it is of a superior quality, and is much
used for rafters, being durable and of immense strength.
The kittool is a very sombre and peculiar palm. Its crest very
much resembles the drooping plume upon a hearse, and the foliage
is a dark green with a tinge of gray. The wood of this palm is
almost black, being apparently a mass of longitudinal strips, or
coarse linen of whalebone running close together from the top to
the root of the tree. This is the toughest and most pliable of
all the palm-woods, and is principally used by the natives in
making "pingos." These are flat bows about eight feet in length,
and are used by the Cingalese for carrying loads upon the
shoulder. The weight is slung at either end of the pingo, and the
elasticity of the wood accommodates itself to the spring of each
step, thereby reducing the dead weight of the load. In this
manner a stout Cingalese will carry and travel with eighty pounds
if working on his own account, or with fifty if hired for a
journey. A Cingalese will carry a much heavier weight than an
ordinary Malabar, as he is a totally different man in form and
strength. In fact, the Cingalese are generally a compactly built
and well-limbed race, while the Malabar is a man averaging full a
stone lighter weight.
The most extraordinary in the list of palms is the talipot. The
crest of this beautiful tree is adorned by a crown of nearly
circular, fan-shaped leaves of so touch and durable a texture
that they are sewn together by the natives for erecting portable
tents or huts. The circumference of each leaf at the extreme
edge is from twenty to thirty feet, and even this latter size is
said to be frequently exceeded.
Every Cingalese throughout the Kandian district is provided with
a section of one of these leaves, which forms a kind of fan about
six feet in length. This is carried in the hand, and is only
spread in case of rain, when it forms an impervious roofing of
about three feet in width at the broad extremity. Four or five
of these sections will form a circular roof for a small hut,
which resembles a large umbrella or brobdignag mushroom.
There is a great peculiarity in the talipot palm. Is blossoms
only once in a long period of years, and after this it dies. No
flower can equal the elegance and extraordinary dimensions of
this blossom; its size is proportionate to its leaves, and it
usurps the place of the faded crest of green, forming a
magnificent crown or plume of snow-white ostrich feathers, which
stand upon the summit of the tall stem as though they were the
natural head of the palm.
There is an interesting phenomenon at the period of flowering.
The great plume already described, prior to its appearing in
bloom, is packed in a large case or bud, about four feet long. In
this case the blossom comes to maturity, at which time the
tightened cuticle of the bard can no longer sustain the pressure
of the expanding flower. It suddenly bursts with a loud report,
and the beautiful plume, freed from its imprisonment, ascends at
this signal and rapidly unfolds its feathers, towering above the
drooping leaves which are hastening to decay.
The areca is a palm of great elegance; it rises to a height of
about eighty feet, and a rich feathery crest adorns the summit.
This is the most delicate stem of all the palm tribe; that of a
tree of eighty feet in length would not exceed five inches in
diameter. Nevertheless, I have never seen an areca palm
overturned by a storm; they bow gracefully to the wind, and the
extreme elasticity of the wood secures them from destruction.
This tree produces the commonly-called "betel-nut," but more
properly the areca-nut. They grow in clusters beneath the crest
of the palm, in a similar manner to the cocoa-nut; but the tree
is more prolific, as it produces about two hundred nuts per
annum. The latter are very similar to large nutmegs both in
size and appearance, and, like the cocoa-nut, they are enclosed
in an outer husk of a fibrous texture.
The consumption of these nuts may be imagined when it is
explained that every native is perpetually chewing a mixture of
this nut and betel leaf. Every man carries a betel bag, which
contains the following list of treasures: a quantity of
areca-nuts, a parcel of betel leaves, a roll of tobacco, a few
pieces of ginger, an instrument similar to pruning scissors and a
brass or silver case (according to the wealth of the individual)
full of chunam paste - viz., a fine lime produced from burnt
coral, slacked. This case very much resembles an old-fashioned
warming-pan breed of watch and chateleine, as numerous little
spoons for scooping out the chunam are attached to it by chains.
The betel is a species of pepper, the leaf of which very much
resembles that of the black pepper, but is highly aromatic and
pungent. It is cultivated to a very large extent by the natives,
and may be seen climbing round poles and trees in every garden.
It has been said by some authors that the betel has powerful
narcotic properties, but, on the contrary, its stimulating
qualities have a directly opposite effect. Those who have
attributed this supposed property to the betel leaf must have
indulged in a regular native "chew" as an experiment, and have
nevertheless been ignorant of the mixture.
We will make up a native "chew" after the most approved fashion,
and the reader shall judge for himself in which ingredient the
narcotic principle is displayed.
Take a betel leaf, and upon this spread a piece of chunam as
large as a pea; then with the pruning scissors cut three very
thin slices of areca-nut, and lay them in the leaf; next, add a
small piece of ginger; and, lastly, a good-sized piece of
tobacco. Fold up this mixture in another betel leaf in a compact
little parcel, and it is fit for promoting several hours'
enjoyment in chewing, and spitting a disgusting blood-red dye in
every direction. The latter is produced by the areca-nut. It is
the tobacco which possesses the narcotic principle; if this is
omitted, the remaining ingredients are simple stimulants.
The teeth of all natives are highly discolored by the perpetual
indulgence in this disgusting habit; nor is this the only effect
produced; cancer in the cheek is a common complaint among them,
supposed to be produced by the caustic lime which is so
continually in the mouth.
The exports of areca-nuts from Ceylon will give some idea of the
supply of palms. In 1853 no less than three thousand tons were
shipped from this colony, valued at about 45,000 l. The greater
portion of these is consumed in India.
Two varieties of palms remain to be described - the date and the
sago. The former is a miserable species, which does not exceed
the height of three to five feet, and the fruit is perfectly
The latter is indigenous throughout the jungles in Ceylon, but it
is neither cultivated, nor is the sago prepared from it.
The height of this palm does not exceed fifteen or twenty feet,
and even this is above the general average. It grows in the
greatest profusion in the Veddah country. The stem is rough and
a continuation of rings divides it into irregular sections. The
leaves are a rich dark green, and very light and feathery,
beneath which the nuts grow in clusters similar to those of the
The only use that the natives make of the produce of this tree
is in the preparation of flour from the nuts. Even this is not
very general, which is much to be wondered at, as the farina is
far superior in flavor to that produced from most grains.
The natives ascribe intoxicating properties to the cakes made
from this flour; but I have certainly eaten a fair allowance at
one time, and I cannot say that I had the least sensation of
The nut, which is something similar to the areca in size, is
nearly white when divested of its outer husk, and this is soaked
for about twenty-four hours in water. During this time a slight
fermentation takes place and the gas generated splits the nut
open at a closed joint like an acorn. This fermentation may,
perhaps, take some exhilarating effect upon the natives' weak
The nuts being partially softened by this immersion are dried in
the sun, and subsequently pounded into flour in a wooden mortar.
This flour is sifted, and the coarser parts being separated, are
again pounded until a beautiful snow-white farina is produced.
This is made into a dough by a proper admixture with water, and
being formed into small cakes, they are baked for about a quarter
of an hour in a chatty. The fermentation which has already taken
place in the nut has impregnated the flower with a leaven; this,
without any further addition, expands the dough when in the oven,
and the cake produced is very similar to a crumpet, both in
appearance and flavor.
The village in which I first tasted this preparation of the
sago-nut was a tolerable sample of such places, on the borders of
the Veddah country. The population consisted of one old man and
a corresponding old woman, and one fine stout young man and five
young women. A host of little children, who were so similar in
height that they must have been one litter, and three or four
most miserable dogs and cats, were additional tenants of the
These people lived upon sago cakes, pumpkins, wild fruits and
berries, river fish and wild honey. The latter is very plentiful
throughout Ceylon, and the natives are very expert in finding out
the nests, by watching the bees in their flight and following
them up. A bee-hunter must be a most keen-sighted fellow,
although there is not so much difficulty in the pursuit as may at
first appear. No one can mistake the flight of a bee en route
home, if he has once observed him. He is no longer wandering
from flower to flower in an uncertain course, but he rushes
through the air in a straight line for the nest. If the
bee-hunter sees one bee thus speeding homeward, he watches the
vacant spot in the air, until assured of the direction by the
successive appearance of these insects, one following the other
nearly every second in their hurried race to the comb. Keeping
his eye upon the passing bees, he follows them until he reaches
the tree in which the nest is found.
There are five varieties of bees in Ceylon; these are all
honey-makers, except the carpenter bee. This species is entirely
unlike a bee in all its habits. It is a bright tinsel-green
color, and the size of a large walnut, but shaped like the humble
bees of England. The month is armed with a very powerful pair of
mandibles, and the tail with a sting even larger and more
venomous than that of the hornet. These carpenter bees are
exceedingly destructive, as they bore holes in beams and posts,
in which they lay their eggs, the larvae of which when hatched
greedily feed upon the timber.
The honey bees are of four very distinct varieties, each of which
forms its nest on a different principle. The largest and most
extensive honey-maker is the "bambera". This is nearly as large
as a hornet, and it forms its nest upon the bough of a tree, from
which it lines like a Cheshire cheese, being about the same
thickness, but five or six inches greater in diameter. The honey
of this bee is not so much esteemed as that from the smaller
varieties, as the flavor partakes too strongly of the particular
flower which the bee has frequented; thus in different seasons
the honey varies in flavor, and is sometimes so highly aperient
that it must be used with much caution. This property is of
course derived from the flower which the bee prefers at that
particular season. The wax of the comb is the purest and whitest
of any kind produced in Ceylon. So partial are these bees to
particular flowers that they migrate from place to place at
different periods in quest of flowers which are then in bloom.
This is a very wonderful and inexplicable arrangement of Nature,
when it is considered that some flowers which particularly
attract these migrations only blossom once in "seven years." This
is the case at Newera Ellia, where the nillho blossom induces
such a general rush of this particular bee to the district that
the jungles are swarming with them in every direction, although
during the six preceding years hardly a bee of the kind is to be
There are many varieties of the nillho. These vary from a tender
dwarf plant to the tall and heavy stern of the common nillho,
which is nearly as thick as a man's arm and about twenty feet
The next honey-maker is very similar in size and appearance to
our common hive bee in England. This variety forms its nest in
hollow trees and in holes in rocks. Another bee, similar in
appearance, but not more than half the size, suspends a most
delicate comb to the twigs of a tree. This nest is no larger
than an orange, but the honey of the two latter varieties is of
the finest quality, and quite equal in flavor to the famed "miel
vert" of the Isle de Burbon, although it has not the delicate
green tint which is so much esteemed in the latter.
The last of the Ceylon bees is the most tiny, although an equally
industrious workman. He is a little smaller than our common
house-fly, and he builds his diminutive nest in the hollow of a
tree, where the entrance to his mansion is a hole no larger than
would be made by a lady's stiletto.
It would be a natural supposition that so delicate an insect
would produce a honey of corresponding purity, but instead of the
expected treasure we find a thick, black and rather pungent but
highly aromatic molasses. The natives, having naturally coarse
tastes and strong stomachs, admire this honey beyond any other.
Many persons are surprised at the trifling exports of wax from
Ceylon. In 1853 these amounted to no more than one ton.
Cingalese are curious people, and do not trouble themselves
about exports; they waste or consume all the beeswax. While we
are contented with the honey and carefully reject the comb, the
native (in some districts) crams his mouth with a large section,
and giving it one or two bites, he bolts the luscious morsel and
begins another. In this manner immense quantities of this
valuable article are annually wasted. Some few of the natives in
the poorest villages save a small quantity, to exchange with the
travelling Moormen for cotton cloths, etc., and in this manner
the trifling amount exported is collected.
During the honey year at Newera Ellia I gave a native permission
to hunt bees in my forests, on condition that he should bring me
the wax. Of course he stole the greater portion, but
nevertheless, in a few weeks he brought me seventy-two pounds'
weight of well-cleaned and perfectly white wax, which he had made
up into balls about the size of an eighteen-pound shot. Thus, in
a few weeks, one man had collected about the thirtieth part of
the annual export from Ceylon; or, allowing that he stole at
least one-half, this would amount to the fifteenth.
It would be a vain attempt to restrain these people from their
fixed habit; they would as soon think of refraining from
betel-chewing as giving up a favorite food. Neither will they be
easily persuaded to indulge in a food of a new description. I
once showed them the common British mushroom, which they declared
was a poisonous kind. To prove the contrary, I had them several
times at table, and found them precisely similar in appearance
and flavor to the well-known, "Agaricus campestris;" but,
notwithstanding this actual proof, the natives would not be
convinced, and, although accustomed to eat a variety of this
tribe, they positively declined this experiment. There is an
edible species which they prefer, which, from its appearance, an
Englishman would shun: this is perfectly white, both above and
below, and the upper cuticle cannot be peeled off. I have tasted
this, but it is very inferior in flavor to the common mushroom.
Experiments in these varieties of fungi are highly dangerous, as
many of the most poisonous so closely resemble the edible species
that they can with difficulty be distinguished. There is one
kind of fungus that I have met with in the forests which, from
its offensive odor and disgusting appearance, should be something
superlatively bad. It grows about four inches high; the top is
round, with a fleshy and inflamed appearance; the stalk is out of
all proportion in its thickness, being about two inches in
diameter and of a livid white color; this, when broken, is full
of a transparent gelatinous fluid, which smells like an egg in
the last stage of rottenness.
This fungus looks like an unhealthy excrescence on the face of
Nature, who, as though ashamed of the disgusting blemish, has
thrown a veil over the defect. The most exquisite fabric that
can be imagined - a scarlet veil, like a silken net - falls over
this ugly fungus, and, spreading like a tent at its base, it is
there attached to the ground.
The meshes of this net are about as fine as those of a very
delicate silk purse, and the gaudiness of the color and the size
of the fungus make it a very prominent object, among the
surrounding vegetation. In fact, it is a diminutive, though
perfect circular tent of net-work, the stem of the fungus forming
the pole in the centre.
I shall never forget my first introduction to this specimen. It
was growing in an open forest, free from any underwood, land it
seemed like a fairy bivouac beneath the mighty trees which
overshadowed it. Hardly believing my own eyes at so strange and
exquisite a structure, I jumped off my horse and hastened to
secure it. But the net-work once raised was like the uncovering
of the veiled prophet of Khorassan, and the stem, crushing in my
fingers, revealed all the disgusting properties of the plant, and
proved the impossibility of removing it entire. The elegance of
its exterior only served to conceal its character-like Madame
Mantilini, who, when undressed, "tumbled into ruins."
There are two varieties of narcotic fungi whose properties are so
mild that they are edible in small quantities. One is a bright
crimson on the surface; this is the most powerful, and is seldom
used. The other is a white solid puff-ball, with a rough outer
skin or rind.
I have eaten the latter on two occasions, having been assured by
the natives that they were harmless. The flavor somewhat
resembles a truffle, but I could not account for the extreme
drowsiness that I felt soon after eating; this wore off in the
course of two or three hours. On the following day I felt the
same effect, but to a still greater degree as, having convinced
myself that they were really eatable, I bad taken a larger
quantity. Knowing that the narcotic principle is the common
property of a great variety of fungi, it immediately struck me
that the puff-balls were the cause. On questioning the natives,
it appeared that it was this principle that they admired, as it
produced a species of mild intoxication.
All people, of whatever class or clime, indulge in some narcotic
drug or drink. Those of the Cingalese are arrack, tobacco, fungi
and the Indian hemp. The use of the latter is, however, not so
general among the Cingalese as the Malabars. This drug has a
different effect from opium, as it does not injure the
constitution, but simply exhilarates, and afterward causes a
In appearance it very nearly resembles the common hemp, but it
differs in the seed. The leaves and blossoms are dried, and are
either smoked like tobacco, or formed into a paste with various
substances and chewed.
When the plant approaches maturity, a gummy substance exudes from
the leaves; this is gathered by men clothed in dry raw hides,
who, by walking through the plantation, become covered with this
gum or glue. This is scraped off and carefully preserved, being
the very essence of the plant, and exceedingly powerful in its
The sensation produced by the properties of this shrub is a wild,
dreamy kind of happiness; the ideas are stimulated to a high
degree, and all that are most pleasurable are exaggerated till
the senses at length sink into a vague and delightful elysium.
The reaction after this unnatural excitement is very
distressing, but the sufferer is set all right again by some
trifling stimulant, such as a glass of wine or spirits.
It is supposed, and confidently asserted by some, that the Indian
hemp is the foundation of the Egyptian "hashisch," the effects of
which are precisely similar.
However harmless the apparent effect of a narcotic drug, common
sense must at once perceive that a repeated intoxication, no
matter how it is produced, must be ultimately hurtful to the
system. The brain, accustomed to constant stimulants, at length
loses its natural power, and requires these artificial assistants
to enable it to perform its ordinary functions, in the same
manner that the stomach, from similar treatment, would at length
cease to act. This being continued, the brain becomes
semi-torpid, until wakened up by a powerful stimulant, and the
nervous system is at length worn out by a succession of exciting
causes and reactions. Thus, a hard drinker appears dull and
heavy until under the influence of his secret destroyer when he
brightens up and, perhaps, shines in conversation; but every
reaction requires a stronger amount of stimulant to lessen its
effect, until mind and body at length become involved in the
The seed of the lotus is a narcotic of a mild description, and it
is carefully gathered when ripe and eaten by the natives.
The lotus is seen in two varieties in Ceylon - the pink and the
white. The former is the most beautiful, and they are both very
common in all tanks and sluggish streams. The leaves are larger
than those of the waterlily, to which they bear a great
resemblance, and the blossoms are full double the size. When the
latter fade, the petals fall, and the base of the flower and
seed-pod remains in the shape of a circular piece of honeycomb,
full of cells sufficiently large to contain a hazel-nut. This is
about the size of the seed, but the shape is more like an acorn
without its cup. The flavor is pleasant, being something like a
filbert, but richer and more oily.
Stramonium (Datura stramonium), which is a powerful narcotic, is
a perfect weed throughout the island, but it is not used by the
natives otherwise than medicinally, and the mass of the people
are ignorant of its qualities, which are only known to the
Cingalese doctors. I recollect some years ago, in Mauritius,
where this plant is equally common, its proprieties were not only
fully understood, but made use of by some of the Chinese
emigrants. These fellows made cakes of manioc and poisoned them
with stramonium. Hot manioc cakes are the common every-day
accompaniment to a French planter's breakfast at Mauritius, and
through the medium of these the Chinese robbed several houses.
Their plan was simple enough.
A man with cakes to sell appeared at the house at an early hour,
and these being purchased, he retired until about two hours after
breakfast was concluded. By this time the whole family were
insensible, and the thieves robbed the house at their leisure.
None of these cases terminated fatally; but, from the instant
that I heard of it, I made every cake-seller who appeared at the
door devour one of his own cakes before I became a purchaser.
These men, however, were bona fide cake-merchants, and I did not
meet with an exception.
There are a great variety of valuable medicinal plants in the
jungles of Ceylon, many of which are unknown to any but the
native doctors. Those most commonly known to us, and which may
be seen growing wild by the roadside, are the nux vomica,
ipecacuanha, gamboge, sarsaparilla, cassia fistula, cardamoms,
The ipecacuanha is a pretty, delicate plant, which bears a bright
orange-colored cluster of flowers.
The cassia fistula is a very beautiful tree, growing to the size
of an ash, which it somewhat resembles in foliage. The blossom
is very beautiful, being a pendant of golden flowers similar to
the laburnum, but each blossom is about two and a half feet long,
and the individual flowers on the bunch are large in proportion.
When the tree is in full flower it is very superb, and equally as
singular when its beauty has faded and the seed-pods are formed.
These grow to a length of from two to three feet, and when ripe
are perfectly black, round, and about three-quarters of an inch
in diameter. The tree has the appearance of bearing, a prolific
crop of ebony rulers, each hanging from the bough by a short
There is another species of cassia fistula, the foliage of which
assimilates to the mimosa. This bears a thicker, but much
shorter, pod, of about a foot in length. The properties of both
are the same, being laxative. Each seed within the pod is
surrounded by a sweet, black and honey-like substance, which
contains the property alluded to.
The gamboge tree is commonly known in Ceylon as the "ghorka."
This grows to the common size of an apple tree, and bears a
corrugated and intensely acid fruit. This is dried by the
natives and used in curries. The gamboge is the juice of the
tree obtained by incisions in the bark. This tree grows in great
numbers in the neighborhood of Colombo, especially among the
cinnamon gardens. Here, also, the cashew tree grows to great
perfection. The bark of the latter is very rich in tannin, and
is used by the natives in the preparation of hides. The fruit is
like an apple in appearance, and small, but is highly astringent.
The well-known cashew-nut grows like an excrescence from the end
of the apple.
Many are the varieties and uses of vegetable productions in
Ceylon, but of these none are more singular and interesting than
the "sack tree," the Riti Gaha of the Cingalese. From the bark
of this tree an infinite number of excellent sacks are procured,
with very little trouble or preparation. The tree being felled,
the branches are cut into logs of the length required, and
sometimes these are soaked in water; but this is not always
necessary. The balk is then well beaten with a wooden mallet,
until it is loosened from the wood; it is then stripped off the
log as a stocking is drawn off the leg. It is subsequently
bleached, and one end being sewn lip, completes a perfect sack of
a thick fibrous texture, somewhat similar to felt.
These sacks are in general use among the natives, and are
preferred by them to any other, as their durability is such that
they sometimes descend from father to son. By constant use they
stretch and increase their original size nearly one half. The
texture necessarily becomes thinner, but the strength does not
appear to be materially decreased.
There are many fibrous barks in Ceylon, some which are so strong
that thin strips require a great amount of strength to break
them, but none of these have yet been reduced to a marketable
fibre. Several barks are more or less aromatic; others would be
valuable to the tanners; several are highly esteemed by the
natives as most valuable astringents, but hitherto none have
received much notice from Europeans. This may be caused by the
general want of success of all experiments with indigenous
produce. Although the jungles of Ceylon produce a long list of
articles of much interest, still their value chiefly lies in
their curiosity; they are useful to the native, but
comparatively of little worth to the European. In fact, few
things will actually pay for the trouble and expense of
collecting and transporting. Throughout the vast forests and
jungles of Ceylon, although the varieties of trees are endless,
there is not one valuable gum known to exist. There is a great
variety of coarse, unmarketable productions, about equal to the
gum of the cherry tree, etc., but there is no such thing as a
high-priced gum in the island.
The export of dammer is a mere trifle - four tons in 1852, twelve
tons in 1853. This is a coarse and comparatively valueless
commodity. No other tree but the doom tree produces any gum
worth collecting; this species of rosin exudes in large
quantities from an incision in the bark, but the amount of
exports shows its insignificance. It is a fair sample of Ceylon
productions; nothing that is uncultivated is of much pecuniary
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