August 2018


The Wild World of Udawadiya
August 2018




A single flower of the Bee orchid, which mimics the female bee pollinator

Orchids have inspired and have left people in awe through their unique form, dainty beauty and resilience; quite unlike any other family of blossoms in the world of flowering plants. In Sri Lanka, these exotic flowers have received the name ‘Udawadiya' and the island is home to 56 endemic and beautiful species.


Words: Nethu Wickramasinghe and Imaduwa Priyadarshana
Photography: Imaduwa Priyadarshana


Orchids are one of nature's most intricate creations, a group of flowers that has gone beyond boundaries, especially with pollination. With an astounding 84 million years in the making, these flowering plants have stood the test of time and have spread across many parts of the world to every imaginable land habitable by plant life. These magnificent beings have inspired cultures since the ancient times for their unique intricacy, and Sri Lanka is no exception.


The forests of the tropical island of Sri Lanka is home to as many as 190 species of naturally occurring orchid varieties while 56 are said to be found only in the island.


Orchids have acquired the native term ‘Uda-Wadiya' meaning ‘growing above' as most orchid varieties found in the island's wilds are epiphytes (plants that grow on the surface of another plant). The flower of an orchid has three true petals and three sepals that closely resemble petals; one of these petals is highly modified and is commonly known as the lip or labellum of the flower.


The famed Foxtail Orchid (Rhynchostylis retusa) is considered the regional orchid of the Uva Province of Sri Lanka as these epiphytes grow naturally on that part of the island. A single flower in this densely packed cylindrical inflorescence resembles a mythical raptor bird of ancient folklore, the ‘Gurula'. Hence, the flower's Sinhalese name is ‘Gurulu Raaja'. The ‘Vesak Orchid' (Dendrobium maccarthiae) is another rare species endemic to Sri Lanka, and is the provincial flower of the Sabaraganuwa province. The flower receives its name as it blooms in the month of May, which is called Vesak according to the Sri Lankan calendar.

The flower of the orchid has the sole responsibility over propagation because it all depends on how well the flower persuades the bees – their dispatch riders and to disperse the pollens.


The flower of the orchid has the sole responsibility over propagation because it all depends on how well the flower persuades the bees - their dispatch riders and to disperse the pollens. Intriguingly, a single species of orchid awaits not just for any bee, but its unique pollinator bee to take their precious pollens to another of its kind. The Bee Orchid (Cottonia peduncularis), which is native to Sri Lanka and mainland India, is no exception. The lip of the flower has evolved to look similar to a hairy female bee, which attracts male bees. The trickery does not stop there. As the inflorescence spikes off from as much as a metre away and each flower branches far off, a slight wind is all it needs to lure a male bee.


Other Orchids attract pollinator bees with features such as vibrant hues, weird shapes and scented odours. Despite its rarity the immense diversity of species in the genus Vanda is quite an exception. Apart from the wild species, many hybridised varieties have gained them popularity in horticulture.

Terrestrial orchids in contrast to epiphytic orchids, often have tubers, which ancestors of Sri Lanka made use for medicinal properties.


Terrestrial orchids in contrast to epiphytic orchids, often have tubers, which ancestors of Sri Lanka made use of for medicinal properties. The beautiful bright yellow Daffodil Orchids or ‘Naga Maru Ala', which grow on the island's hilly terrains, have tubers that have been used as an aphrodisiac.


Two other strikingly beautiful terrestrial orchids in Sri Lanka are the ‘Iru Raaja' (Zeuxine regia) and ‘Wana Raja' (Anoectochilus regalis). These are jewel orchids with velvety, bright contrasting leaves that are more attractive than the plant's flowers. These orchids are also known for their medicinal properties and have been used in indigenous medicine for centuries.


Lithophytes orchids, which grow on rocks, are endemic but rare and generally grow close to water bodies in the lowland rain forests. Malaxis thwaitesii is one such elusive orchid variety. These orchids are a threatened species, as to take root the plant requires the right surface. It must take root at the right time and during the germination process, as in all orchid species, the presence of a fungi is a must.


If you know how to identify their habitats, then the ideal destination to observe and discover as many wild varieties of orchids in Sri Lanka would be on a trek to the summits of the ‘Sri Pada' Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. On a hike just after the monsoons, one would be mesmerised by the many varieties of these magical beauties that gleam amidst the foliage.

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    Charming blooms of the Foxtail Orchid is locally known as the Gurulu Raaja

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    Vesak Orchid is the flower of the Sabaragamuwa province

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    Vanda tesselata is a species with a high number of colour varieties known

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    Vanda tesselata

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    Bright yellow Daffodil Orchids, where its tubers are used as indigenous medicine

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    Iru raaja, another endemic jewel orchid, that grows in the Peak Wilderness

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    Blooms of the Jewel orchid 'Wana raaja'

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    Malaxis thwaitesii is an orchid that grows on rocks closer to water bodies

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    Seidenfadeniella filiformis a rare beautiful Orchid that is found at Sri Pada Peak Wilderness Sanctuary

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