In Appreciation of Sam Popham & His “Popham Method in Forest Regeneration”

Risidra Mendis in Ceylon Today, 4 June 2022, where the title runs thus: “The Popham legacy lives on”

Rows of large and valuable trees, lush greenery in abundance, a cool atmosphere, and plenty of interesting things to see are what the iconic Francis Home Popham, (better known as Sam Popham) – the creator of the world-renowned Popham Method in Forest Regeneration, and founder of the Popham Arboretum in Dambulla – left behind when he passed away on 28 May 2022 at an Assisted-Living facility in England.

The British environmentalist may have left the earthly realms but he leaves behind a legacy in the arboretum that he created and initially funded – now known as the National Institute of Fundamental Studies’ (NIFS) Popham Arboretum in Sisirawatte, Dambulla (along the Kandalama Road).

The main ‘house’ containing Popham’s original living quarters and office, which was designed by his friend, the legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa can still be seen at the Arboretum, with its curved lines that take the general form of a ship (resembling the corvette from which Popham first glimpsed Ceylon), with its ‘bridge’ as his office, and the water tower as its smokestack.

An undying love for Ceylon

Popham was born on 29 February 1923. He was educated at Eton and Magdalene College Cambridge, where he graduated in History. He first came to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as a young British Naval Officer during World War II. Back home in England after the war, Popham became a schoolmaster for a while, before returning to Sri Lanka a few years later as a Tea Planter.

Popham’s long-time friend and past curator Jayabuddhi ‘Jayantha’ Amerasinghe recalling his past with the Arboretum’s founder says Popham first arrived in Sri Lanka while serving aboard a Royal Navy corvette, which harboured in Trincomalee towards the end of World War II.

“After falling in love with Ceylon, he determined to return several years later, and obtained a post as a planter on a tea estate – a position that he held for well over a decade. While travelling through Dambulla in 1963, Popham decided to purchase half an acre of land, where he intended to cultivate Mango trees,” Amerasinghe said.

His love for trees, made him give up planting tea and assume responsibility as the Smithsonian Institute’s Principal Field Officer in the ‘Flora of Ceylon’ project. He bought seven and a half acres of thorny scrub jungle (abandoned chena land) in Dambulla to establish a Mango plantation and the Sam Popham Arboretum was established in 1963.

The Popham Method

Many of these original trees still live on in the arboretum, Amerasinghe says, but it was just after he had the land cleared, and just before he planted his mango seedlings, that Popham made his discovery. “Later known in academic circles as the Popham Method called Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR). This technique of forest regeneration involves periodically clearing lands of invasive species, thereby allowing long-dormant seeds in the ground to sprout and thrive. Several workers still in the arboretum are those who were originally recruited by Popham,” Amerasinghe explains.

He says Popham also periodically made several generous donations and gifts to the local community and was always held in high esteem, even though his passion for forest conservation had an edge of ruthlessness to it.

“His staff was well aware that the mere breaking of a single twig, or the partial tearing of a leaf, was sufficient grounds for instant dismissal, regardless of tenure. In a more moderate form, his passion survives him, with later generations of children from the local villages now gradually assuming key roles in the arboretum, which has now become a focus for both international and local researchers interested in forest regeneration methods as well as the flora and fauna of tropical Sri Lanka,” Amerasinghe says.

The Past Curator goes on to say that the original half-acre of the arboretum is now more than 34 acres of forest, although the wild elephants and wild boar sounders are now gone – early casualties of growing urbanisation.

A safe haven for flora and fauna

“Previously administered by the Tree Society of Sri Lanka, ‘Ruk Rakaganno’, the arboretum is now owned and managed by the NIFS. So far, scientists and researchers studying the arboretum flora have identified and documented 132 species of timber trees, 85 species of medicinal plants, and 50 species of shrubs, as part of a total of 317 types of plants. Seventeen species of bats, 77 species of butterflies, 83 types of birds, and 12 species of dragonflies were also discovered here,” Amerasinghe reveals.

The first night-safari (in Sri Lanka) to view the elusive Grey Slender Loris was conducted there by then Curator Amerasinghe, and since then, several other localities have followed suit. The recently retired curator of the arboretum, Amerasinghe, first worked for Popham in 1994. He later took over as the curator when Popham decided to return to England, and on several occasions played a critical role in keeping the arboretum viable and the remaining staff together, during several dark periods in Sri Lanka’s recent history.

Under the curatorship of Amerasinghe, a mini dam was constructed across a seasonal stream, and the walking trails were thoughtfully re-designated. Also thanks to his efforts, the arboretum has received the Trip advisor Certificate of Excellence for six years consecutively. “The legacy of Popham remains a popular foreign and domestic tourist attraction, rewarding the quiet and patient visitor with some of the most unusual bird sightings,” Amerasinghe says.

Popham also received the inaugural Lanka Conservation Award in 1992 for founding the Dambulla Arboretum and for his outstanding contribution.

Then came the day when Amerasinghe got an opportunity to go and visit Popham after 20 years and share all the good stories about the arboretum. “I was thrilled to meet Popham after so many years and we spent hours talking about the good old days. I’m glad that I got an opportunity to meet him again. My only promise to him was that till my dying day I would look after the project to the best of my ability,” Amerasinghe pledges.

To commemorate the passing of Popham a special bana sermon was held on 3 June 2022 and an almsgiving for 15 Buddhist monks on 4 June, 2022 at the Arboretum. The monks were from the Sri Bodhirukkaramaya, Atathuparayaya.

……………. Pix courtesy Jayantha Amerasinghe


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2 responses to “In Appreciation of Sam Popham & His “Popham Method in Forest Regeneration”

  1. Manel Fonseka

    From the early 1980s to the mid ‘early 90s, we were closely involved with Sam when my archaeologist husband (Senake Bandaranayake) was excavating in Sigiriya & Dambulla. We would often visit him & savour the unimaginable pleasure of strolling around the arboretum.

    I was a sort of editor for his book on the Arboretum (see his preface). Gosh, that was 30 years ago! I wonder how widely known in Sri Lanka Sam’s book, “Dambulla: A Sanctuary of Tropical Trees” (1993), is.

    Sadly, we lost touch after he returned to Britain & had no news of him. And only recently did I learn of his passing on.

  2. Manel Fonseka

    I had a copy of another book about the arboretum, by a Sri Lankan — a man of the cloth, I think — but I cant find my copy now nor remember the title & author. But I think he was a botanist of some kind.

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