Sri Lanka is a major exporter of agricultural products. Rice, tea, rubber and coconut are the main crops. Coconuts and rice have traditionally been low-land, wet zone crops. Tea has traditionally been the primary highland crop. Rubber is regarded as middle elevation crop. Sugar cane is cultivated in the dry zone, but Sri Lanka produces only about 15 percent of what it consumes domestically.

Major crops for domestic consumption: rice, breadfruit, jackfruit, coconuts, vegetables, manioc, plantains (cooking bananas), yams, pulses, grains and fruits. Many of these crops are cultivated in family gardens. Chilies other spices, herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine, marijuana, onions and tomatoes are often grown for sale at local markets.

Major crops for export: tea, rubber, coconut are grown on large plantations. Cinnamon and other spices are also cash crops. Sri Lanka is an important source of tea, spices, rubber, and coconuts. In the early 2000s, approximately two thirds of the cultivated land and two thirds of the population was somehow involved in the production and distribution of these products.

The importance of crops other than tea, rubber and coconuts increased after 1970, and in 1986 they accounted for around 51 percent of agricultural output. There was a substantial increase in of minor food crops, including soybeans, chilies, and onions, all of which are grown as subsidiary crops on land irrigated by the Mahaweli project. In the 1960s and earlier, vegetables were imported from India in large quantities, but in the 1980s the island's import requirements were much smaller. Spices, including cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, and pepper, also registered large gains in the 1970s and 1980s. A large proportion of the spice output was being exported in the 1980s. Other crops of importance included corn, millet, sweet potatoes, cassava, dry beans, sesame seed, and tobacco. A wide variety of tropical fruits, including mangoes, pineapples, plantains, and papayas, also were grown; most were consumed in the domestic market. Sugar output increased in the early 1980s, although in 1986 it still accounted for only 11 percent of the domestic consumption. The expansion in sugar took place despite the problems of the state-run sugar mills and their associated sugar lands in Eastern Province, which have been disrupted by civil strife. Two new mills in Western Province accounted for the increase in production, and in early 1988 the outlook for further expansion was good. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]


Plantation Agriculture in Sri Lanka

The British for the most part introduced plantation agriculture to Sri Lanka. In 1830s, following the abolition of African slavery in the British Caribbean, British capitalists established coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, but it was not until the 1840s that they began producing more than local farmers. Large numbers of Tamil laborers from southern India traveled annually to the Sri Lankan highlands to find employment on the plantations. Many of these laborers eventually became residents on the plantations. [Source: James L. A. Webb Jr. “History of World Trade Since 1450", Thomson Gale, 2006]

The coffee industry after it was hit an expanding fungal blight from 1869 until the late 1880s when coffee industry collapsed. In the late 1870s plantations of cinchona trees were grown to make the antimalarial medicine quinine.. In the 1880s these cinchona plantations fell to ruin as a result of overproduction and subsoil drainage. In the 1880s plantation owners and some Kandyan farmers began growing tea soon and the highlands were covered by the leafy green shrub. Tea's was rapid and has stood the test of time.

In the first half of the twentieth century Singhalese owners expanded their plantations of coconuts in the lowlands for both domestic and overseas markets, and British planters took up the production of rubber. Both developed as significant exports through the twentieth century. Today tea, rubber, and coconuts remain the primary plantation crops in Sri Lanka and continue to play a major role in the Sri Lankan economy, however, their share of GDP declined from 11.5 percent in 1970 to 5 percent in 2000. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

In the early 2000s, tea, rubber, coconuts, and rice made up made up 95 percent of the country’s agricultural exports and accounted for 75 percent of the cultivated land. Tea has accounted for as much as two thirds of Sri Lanka’s export earning. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest producers of tea. Rubber accounts for about 15 percent of the yearly agricultural export income and coconuts account for about 14 percent of the same..

According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”: About 75 percent of those working in agriculture are engaged in the production of tea, rubber, and coconuts, the three crops that represent nearly 60 percent of Sri Lanka’s agricultural land. Tea production in 2004 was 303,000 tons. Rubber production was 92,000 tons and coconut production totaled 1,950,000 tons.Lesser crops include sugar, pepper, cinnamon, chilies, sesame, cardamom, tobacco, cashew nuts, betel leaves, coffee, and cocoa. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

Ancient Foods and Crops in Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lankan journalist and writer, wrote: There can be little doubt that the ancient Sinhalese who migrated to Sri Lanka from West Bengal (Radha) around the 5th century B.C., brought their North Indian Aryan cuisine to their new homeland. Such fare, as borne out by the ancient hymns of the Rig-Veda(c. 1500 B.C.) would have comprised cereal, meat, milk and fruits. Although by later Vedic times (c. 1200 B.C.) the cow had become sacred, the flesh of other animals continued to be eaten with relish, being cooked in pots or roasted on spits. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

An alcoholic beverage, sura, distilled from grain, was a favourite amongst these Aryans. There is evidence to show that in pre-Christian era Sri Lanka, rice was extensively cultivated in the Raja-rata (The North-Central dry zone) where the first Sinhalese civilization came into being, with the aid of massive irrigation works.

This cereal which constituted the staple of the people during those times (as it is even today) was consumed in a variety of ways. According to the Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty written in Pali around the 5th century. and its sequel, the Chulavansa, a variety of rice dishes were known in ancient times. Two sorts of cooked rice (Pali. bhatta, Sinhala. bhat) were consumed, namely yagu (rice gruel) and payasa (milk-rice). Another kind of sweet rice, dadhibhatta, prepared with curdled milk was also known.

According to the Sunday Times: Other varieties of subsidiary food-grains, beans and pulses were grown on unirrigated fields; these products comprised an important and essential part of the people’s diet. The main edible oil was that extracted from sesamum,(‘tala’) also grown on high lands. Sugarcane was an important crop, and molasses formed an important item of the diet of the richer folk. The needs of clothing of the population were satisfied with the cotton grown locally. Varieties of fruit trees were grown, the mango receiving special mention. Coconut groves are mentioned in an early inscription as well as in literary works, and its nut was eaten when tender. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Cattle-breeding was as important an occupation as agriculture. The ghee extracted from the cow’s milk was regularly taken with rice by everyone except the poorest. Curd and other milk products formed important items of food”.

Mention is also made that products like turmeric (‘kaha’), ginger (‘inguru’), pepper (‘gammiris’) and spices (‘kulu badu’) were grown in hilly regions. There were fishing villages in the coast and also fish in inland waters was an important item in the diet of the people. Honey collected in the field was both a food item and a medicinal item.

Traditional Sinhalese Crops

Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: The food of the Sinhala people, who lived in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka during the early Anuradhapura period (377 B.C.-A.D.1017), consisted of rice, other subsidiary food grains, beans, pulses, oil extracted from sesamum (gingelly), sugar cane molasses, fruits like the mango, tender coconut, ghee, curd and other milk products, honey collected from the forest as an article of food as well as medicine, fish both from the sea and inland waters and meat supplied by hunters to the people in the villages and towns. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

The people who had migrated from the Dry Zone to the Wet Zone had to adapt themselves to the conditions of life in their new homes and form new dietary habits. The ghee and the edible oil extracted from sesamum, to which they had been accustomed were no longer available in sufficient quantity and they had to acquire a taste for the coconut oil. Large areas were planted with this useful palm; the coastal belt between Kalutara and Bentota was planted with coconut in the reign of Parakramabahu II (1236 – 1270). Such a large area being planted with coconut by the direction of the State indicates that it was not done solely to supply the local demand, but also to satisty the requirements of external trade. It was in the Dambadeniya period that the island began to be famous in the world for its cinnamon.

In addition to the rice, whether grown in wet or dry fields, the literature of the period refers to various other grains and cerials grown by the peasants. These are very much the same as those cultivated today in the villages. Neat cattle and buffaloes were important items in the wealth those days and the five milk products (pas go rasa) milk, curd, whey (butter milk or moru), ghee and butter, were regular items in the diet of the well to do. A Chinese writer referring to the people of this country during the 15th century says, “They take no meal without butter and milk; if they have none and wish to eat they do so unobserved and in private.” The Venetian traveller Marco Polo says that the people of Lanka (towards the close of the 13th century) had no other grain except rice. “They made oil out of sesame and lived on milk, flesh and rice and used wines made from certain trees.” Marco Polo seems to refer to people of the North.

Medieval Sri Lanka Crops and Food

Asiff Hussein wrote: Rice was prepared as a sweet dish with various ingredients such as sugar (phanita), honey (madhu) and butter (sappi). Savoury rice dishes with oil (tela) were also known. The Chulavansa records that King Silameghavanna (7th century) entertained the Buddhist clergy with milk-rice made with butter and syrup. An exquisite savoury dish comprised of rice prepared with the milk of the king coconut (sannira) and butter and fine spices (supehi). Black pepper (maricha), long pepper (pipphali), garlic (lasuna), ginger (singivera) and the three kinds of the medicinal myrobalan fruits (tiphalani), namely Amalaka (Emblica officinalis), Hari-taka (Terminalia chebula) and Akkha (T. belerica), were used as spices. Indeed such a hold had rice on the people, that rice and food were considered synonymous in ancient times. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: Provisions for the bhikkhus [Buddhist monks], mentioned in inscriptions, included, besides rice, vegetables, fish, coconuts, young coconuts, jaggery, oil for anointing, for cooking and for lighting, betel leaves, arecanuts, onions, pepper, salt, panic seeds and turmeric. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS, June 4, 2006]

The late Ven, Prof. Dr. Walpola Rahula in his authoritative thesis ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ says with reference to the Sinhala people of yore “Generally, well –to-do people ate three times a day. Besides rice which was the staple food of the people, meals usually consisted of various curries, curd, honey, sweets, butter, green herbs, paddy dried and pounded (puthuka) and even lotus roots and stalks (bhisamulala).

Various kinds of meat such as peacock-flesh (mayuramamsa), venison and pork (miga-sukara maddava), hare (sasa-mamsa and chicken (kukkuta – mamsa) seem to have been considered favourite and delicious dishes. Monks were often served with these dishes. There was also a preparation called honied – meat (madhumamsa). Certain people, most probably hunters, sometimes ate even monkey flesh (vanara mamsa). But beef eating as we saw earlier was a punishable offence. There is nothing to suggest that there was anything like popular vegetarianism in ancient Ceylon.”

Rice Cultivation in Sri Lanka

Rice is the major staple crop and food in Sri Lanka. It is produced over much of the country. The maha rice crop (63 percent of production) is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, while the yala rice crop (37 percent) is planted in the summer and harvested in the fall. Production of rice was 2.5 million tons in 2004. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

Rice is the main crop in the subsistence sector and rice farming is an important economic activity for many people living in rural areas. Between 1950 and 2000, the rice sector grew rapidly and output more than tripled, reaching the highest of 2.9 million metric tons in 1999. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Between 1960-2000, the area used to grow rice increased six times to 546,249 hectares. The modernization of farming methods, such as the use of high-yielding seeds, tractors, and chemical fertilizers also led to increased productivity in the rice sector. Between 1960-1999, rice yield per hectare doubled from 1,877 kilograms to 3,672 kilograms. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Rice cultivation has increased markedly since Independence, although in the late 1980s yields remained well below those of the major rice-producing countries. Much of the improvement came in the late 1970s and 1980s. Rice remained a smallholder's crop, and production techniques varied according to region. In some villages, it was still sown by hand, with harvesting and threshing often engaging the entire family, plus all available friends and relatives. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Because no completely perennial sources of water exist, there was uncertainty regarding the adequacy of the supply each year. In the wet zone, flooding and waterlogging was experienced in the 1980s, whereas in the dry zone even the irrigated areas were subject to the possibility of insufficient water. In the mid- and up-country wet zone areas, most fields were sown twice a year in the 1980s; in the dry zone most holdings were sown only once; and in the low-country wet zone the amount of flooding or waterlogging determined whether to plant once or twice. The maha (greater monsoon) crops are sown between August and October and harvested five or six months later; the yala (lesser monsoon) crops sown between April and May and harvested about four or five months later.*

Despite some increases in productivity, rice output was disappointing in the 1960s and early 1970s. Greater incentives to farmers after 1977 contributed to increases in production. Both the area under cultivation and the yield increased steadily between 1980 and 1985, when annual output reached 2.7 million tons, compared to an annual output of around 1.4 million tons in the early 1970s. In 1986 unfavorable weather and security difficulties led to a slight decline in production. A severe drought affected the crop in 1987, when output was estimated at only 2.1 million tons.*

Paddy Fields in Sri Lanka

D. B. Kappagoda wrote: The tract of paddy field — "Yaya" close to the wewa is called "Upaya pota" or "Mul pota". The second tract further out is known as "Harena pota" or "Perala pota". The third is named "Asvaddum pota". Each tract is further sub-divided into portions known as "Ihalabage" (upper division), "Medabage" (middle division), and "Pahalabage" (lower division).The crown land sold to farmers is called "Akkaraval". The extent of the land is measured by the extent of grain that is sowed such as "Amuna" , "Pela", "Kuruni" etc. It was customary to leave two strips of paddy fields at either end of each tract called "Kurulu paluwa" (birds loss) — an allowance of extra land as compensation for damage caused by birds. [Source: D. B. Kappagoda, CDN, Mid Week Mirror]

The two strips of land at each end next to the "Kurulu paluwa" are called "Ela pat" and they belong to the "gamarala" (village elder). The portions in the center "pota" are equally divided among the shareholders or the "Pangu karayas". The "gamarala" is the co-ordinator of the cultivation system in the village. He chooses the dates for the issue of water, clearing the jungle, repairing fences, ploughing, sowing, caretaking, harvesting and also invoking the blessings of the guardian deities.

In all these activities, the villagers act with mutual understanding and co-operation according to customary practices known as "Attam". Money is not paid for services. Instead each villager is obliged to work and in return gets the services of the others. The system of mutual help prevails even in the temples. When monks depend on monks living in other temples for religious ceremonies like pirith and pansukula, it then becomes obligatory on their part to participate.


Tea Cultivation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one the world’s largest producers of tea and tea is Sri Lanka's largest export crop. The plants, originally imported from Assam in India, are grown in the wet zone at low, middle, and high altitudes, and produce a high-grade black tea. The higher altitudes produce the best tea, and terracing is used to eke out the limited area of upper altitude land. Tea cultivation is meticulous and time consuming, requiring the constant and skilled attention of two or three workers per hectare. Because of this requirement, tea is most efficiently grown on estates, based on large capital investment and having a highly organized and disciplined management and labor supply. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Tea production in 2004 was 303,000 tons. Tea is the main crop of the plantation sector. It grows in many parts of the wet zone, and in particular in the central hill country. Sri Lanka is famous for its high quality black tea, and for a long time was world’s largest supplier. In 1999, 269.3 million kilograms of tea (95 percent of total tea production) was exported, earning US$621 million. The United Kingdom, Russia, and the Middle East were the main export markets. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002; “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007] ]

Because working and living on estates was not attractive to Sinhalese peasants, the labor supply for the tea industry from its inception was provided by Indian Tamil immigrants who lived on the estates. Since independence the number of Sinhalese workers has increased, but in the late 1980s Tamils still dominated this sector.*

The performance of the tea industry was disappointing in the 1970s and early 1980s, because of poor producer prices and low productivity. Tea production was 211 million kilograms in 1986, down from 220 million kilograms in 1969. The fundamental problem of the tea estates was the advanced age of the tea bushes. In 1987 their average age was around sixty years and only 15 percent of the total area under tea had been replanted with high-yielding varieties. Replanting had been neglected in the 1960s and 1970s partly because low tea prices and high export duties meant that profit margins were not high enough to make it a profitable enterprise. Between 1972 and 1974, the growing risk of nationalization also discouraged investment.*

See Separate Article on TEA IN SRI LANKA

Rubber Cultivation in Sri Lanka

Rubber is another important export crop. It thrives under plantation conditions in the wet zone, although a significant proportion of the crop is produced by smallholders. Although rubber yields improved greatly in the first twenty years after independence, both the output and area planted with rubber declined in the 1980s. Output fell from 156 million kilograms in 1978 to 125 million kilograms in 1982. Improved prices caused production levels to recover to about 138 million kilograms in 1986. Rubber production was 92,000 tons in 2004. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Top Rubber Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Thailand, 1698667 , 3166910; 2) Indonesia, 1567233 , 2921872; 3) Malaysia, 575213 , 1072400; 4) India, 439295 , 819000; 5) Viet Nam, 353796 , 659600; 6) China, 293861 , 547861; 7) Philippines, 220475 , 411044; 8) Côte d'Ivoire, 101124 , 188532; 9) Nigeria, 76702 , 143000; 10) Sri Lanka, 69321 , 129240; 11) Brazil, 64851 , 120905; 12) Liberia, 43446 , 81000; 13) Guatemala, 37546 , 70000; 14) Cameroon, 27891 , 52000; 15) Myanmar, 24137 , 45000; 16) Cambodia, 16990 , 31676; 17) Mexico, 14862 , 27709; 18) Guinea, 7455 , 13900; 19) Ecuador, 7375 , 13750; 20) Ghana, 7241 , 13500.

Rubber is grown in the ridge and valley country of the wet zone interior. According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies: “Of 159,000 hectares under cultivation, about 80 percent was being tapped (harvested) and in 1999, 96.6 million kilograms of rubber were produced. A sizable proportion of rubber production is used in the domestic manufacturing sector (56 percent in 1999) and the remainder is exported. In 1999 export earnings amounted to US$33 million. China is traditionally the major buyer of Sri Lankan rubber. The performance of this sector has been subject to instability due to unfavorable movements in world prices. Competition from synthetic rubber producers has caused rubber prices to drop. However, with rising petroleum prices (the major ingredient for synthetic rubber) there is a chance for world rubber prices to improve. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Despite the importance of rubber, a large number of rubber plantations suffer from old age and neglect. The government offered incentives to encourage replanting and improve maintenance procedures. Nevertheless, the area replanted in 1986 was 12 percent less than in 1985. This drop in replanting resulted from a shortage of seeds and the reluctance of farmers to retire land from production at a time of relatively attractive prices. In early 1988, however, the short- and medium-term outlook for world rubber prices was considered good.*


Coconut Cultivation in Sri Lanka

Most of the coconut production was sold in the domestic market, which consumed about 1.4 billion nuts in the mid-1980s. Most of the rest of the crop, usually between 2 billion and 3 billion nuts, was exported as copra, coconut oil, and desiccated coconut. Local uses for coconut include timber for construction, leaves for thatch and siding, coir for rope and rough textiles, and toddy and arrack for alcoholic beverages. The coconut production was 1,950,000 tons in 2004. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007; Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Top Coconut Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Indonesia, 1763580 , 19500000; 2) Philippines, 1367481 , 15319500; 3) India, 985253 , 10894000; 4) Brazil, 249527 , 2759044; 5) Sri Lanka , 199944 , 2210800; 6) Thailand, 134206 , 1483927; 7) Mexico, 112724 , 1246400; 8) Viet Nam, 98217 , 1086000; 9) Papua New Guinea, 61227 , 677000; 10) Malaysia, 41187 , 455408; 11) Myanmar, 33462 , 370000; 11) United Republic of Tanzania, 33462 , 370000; 13) Ghana, 28579 , 316000; 14) Vanuatu, 27828 , 307700; 15) China, 26943 , 297911; 16) Solomon Islands, 24961 , 276000; 17) Jamaica, 24020 , 265600; 18) Mozambique, 23966 , 265000; 19) Nigeria, 21162 , 234000; 20) Samoa, 14018 , 155000;

Coconuts are grown mainly in the hinterland of the west coast of Sri Lanka. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: Production in 1999 accounted for 2,828 million nuts, the highest output since 1986. Coconut (mainly coconut milk) is a major ingredient used in food preparation in Sri Lanka, and nearly 65 percent of the output is consumed locally. The remainder is exported in the form of kernel products (desiccated coconut, coconut oil, copra), coconut cream, and coconut milk powder. In 1999, kernel products generated US$129 million in foreign exchange. [Source:“Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Coconut output fluctuates depending on weather conditions, fertilizer application, and producer prices. In the 1980s, smallholders dominated its production, which was concentrated in Colombo and Kurunegala districts and around the city of Chilaw in Puttalam District. Because of a drought in 1983, production suffered a setback during 1984 and fell to 1.9 billion nuts, its lowest level since 1977. The recovery during 1985 was impressive, leading to the record production of almost 3 billion nuts. This level was itself surpassed in 1986, when production rose a further 3 percent. But the average export price fell by 45 percent in 1985 and by 56 percent in 1986. In 1986 the farm gate price probably fell below the cost of production, and in early 1988 it appeared that fluctuations in the world price of coconut products would remain a problem for the foreseeable future. The 1987 drought was expected to reduce coconut production by at least 20 percent in both 1987 and 1988. Like tea and rubber, the coconut sector suffered from inadequate replanting. Consequently, a large proportion of the trees were old and past optimum productivity levels.*


Fruits in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka you can find delicious papayas, pineapples, several varieties of mangoes, passion fruit, and over a dozen varieties of bananas, including red ones and plantains cooking bananas . Mangosteens, rambutans, sapodilla. Soursap, guava, beli, varaka and durian are unique and delightful. Among the locally consumed fruits are jackfruit, coconuts, breadfruit, woodapples, passion fruit, sapodilla, guava, beli, lemons, watermelons, cantaloupes and varaka,

The season for mangosteens is from July to September. The season for durians is from July to September. The season for rambutans is from July to September. Fruits such as jackfruit, breadfruit and plantains are cooked as well as enjoyed uncooked. Ripe jackfruit, boiled or curried. Mature jackfruit, bread fruit, manioc and yams like kiri ala, hirgurala, wel ala, rajaala are regarded as healthy foods.

Bananas, plantains and mangoes come in a huge number of varieties, shapes and sizes. Woodapples are made in to drinks, desserts toppings and jam. Sri Lankans believe that coconuts flush out the kidneys and settle upset stomachs. Prickly brown durians are also sold at many wayside spots. Many people find their odour very offensive, but those who are brave enough to actually taste the fruit, declare it to be rich, creamy and absolutely delicious. It is in fact called the "Honeymoon" fruit in South-East Asia because of its supposedly aphrodisiac properties!

Chandra Edirisuriya wrote: Fruits available in Sri Lanka can be categorised into endemic, those brought from overseas and grown here and imported fruits. One of the earliest mentioned fruits in this country is the mango. Other fruits growing wild in the dry and wet zone jungles in Sri Lanka include divul (woodapple), palu, weera, mora, kon, nelli, madan, goraka, tamarind, beli, koholle lavulu, timbiri, himbutu. Fruits brought from other countries and propagated here include jak, papaw, bananas and plantains, guava, pomegranate, avocado or alligator pear, mangosteen, rimbuttan, cashew apple, jambola, tangerine, orange, pears, peaches, strawberry, gooseberry, mulberry, loquats, lime, star-fruit, anona, passion fruit, pineapple, sapadilla, durian, rata goraka, breadfruit etc. Mulberry fruits when fully ripe make an excellent jam and a single tree in the garden will supply enough fruits to eat as fresh fruit also.

Pineapple is grown on a large scale in this country in plantations because it has a ready demand in the international market. Fruits like cantaloupe melons and water melons are grown in the Mahaweli areas also for export. Many other fruits like mangoes, bananas and others can be grown on a large scale for local consumption as well as for export. The export of passion fruit juice was thriving at one time but owing to inability to follow basic rules of quality control it had to be abandoned. The demand overseas for most tropical fruits exceeds supply. Imported fruits enjoy a good market here because of the stringent quality control exercised by authorities in other fruit exporting countries. The country has much to gain by growing fruits systematically on a large scale both for local consumption and export. Jams are made from local fruits like divul (woodapples), mangoes, pineapples, passion fruit etc and from imported fruits like apricots, strawberries etc. Mixed fruit jams with a combination of those fruits are made. Jams made of fruits like plums, black berries, blue berries etc are imported into the island. [Source: Chandra Edirisuriya, WS]

Almost all kinds of fruits grown in the Mediterranean and temperate climates can be had here. Apples take pride of place among imported fruits. In the 1940s and the 1950s there were only green apples which were very sweet smelling, each one wrapped in tissue paper and packed in pinewood boxes. Apples of different colors, shades ranging from red to pink to green are imported from the US, Australia, China, India and Pakistan. Jaffa oranges came first and now oranges and tangerines come from Australia and Pakistan as well. Red and green grapes come from Mediterranean climates. Even plums, kiwi fruit, nectarin and grapefruits are available at the supermarkets at a price for those who can afford to buy such exotic fruits.

Spices in Sri Lanka

Spices produced in Sri Lanka include sugar, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, chilies, nutmeg, sesame, and cardamom. Sri Lanka’s spices have been one its main attractions for thousands of years. Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt in about 1500 B.C.. The Romans, Arabs and the western world traded with Sri Lanka in ancient times to obtain spices. years. Today Sri Lanka remains one of the foremost exporters of quality spice across the world.

Beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries, traders from all over the world came to Sri Lanka in quest of fragrant and aromatic cardamoms, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Some of these traders settled on the island. Common spices and flavoring used in Sri Lankan cooking include turmeric, cinnamon, cummin seeds, coriander, cardamom, garlic, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, tart-sweet tamarind, onions, hot chilies and Maldive fish (dried sprats). Turmeric, ginger, pepper and spices used in the preparation of food in the hilly regions of the Sri Lanka. The Sinhala use gammiris or honda miris peppers as well as red chillies.

A number of therapeutic spice gardens are found on the routes into Kandy from Colombo, and many offer multi-lingual garden tours. Here you can view and sample not just spices but a range of things including vanilla and cocoa pods, curry leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and sandalwood, red bananas, sea coconut and king coconut, coffee beans, aloe vera, and much more, many growing on trees and plants.

Today Sri Lanka is one of the foremost exporters of quality spice across the world. The island’s dominance in the spice world is reflected in the fact that both cinnamon and cardamom are native to Sri Lanka and the country is also a major supplier of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and mace.

Cinnamon and Sri Lanka

At one time Sri Lanka supplied almost 90 percent of the world’s cinnamon — between 7,500 to10,000 tonnes annually. In 2008, it ranked third in behind Indonesia and China. Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. In ancient Egypt it was used as a medicine, a flavoring for beverages and as a cavity filler in mummies. In ancient Rome it was valued more than gold. Cinnamon was one of the spices sought by early European explorers to Asia. Columbus was looking for it when he discovered America. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka after reaching India in 1536 and were able to secure a tribute of 110,000 pounds of cinnamon a year from the Sinhalese king. When the Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 they introduced a system for cultivating cinnamon that is still used today.

There are between 50 and 250 cinnamon species depending in the botanical source. Two kinds are used as spices: 1) Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, light brown bark with a sweet, delicate flavor; and 2) cassia, which is darker, less sweet, thicker and courser than true cinnamon. True cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. The best cinnamon is said to grow along the coastal strip near Colombo. Efforts to grow it outside of Sri Lanka were largely unsuccessful for a long time The Seychelles is one of the few places it has become naturalized. In North America, cassia is often sold as cinnamon. The cinnamon of ancient times was most likely cassia. The Cassia is native to Burma and is grown in China, Indonesia, the East and West Indies and Central America. There are many varieties of cassia.

Top Cinnamon Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Indonesia, 104194 , 60000; 2) China, 95511 , 55000; 3) Sri Lanka, 23322 , 13430; 4) Viet Nam, 21707 , 12500; 5) Madagascar, 2865 , 1650; 6) Seychelles, 163 , 94; 7) Timor-Leste, 130 , 75; 8) Dominica, 104 , 60; 9) Grenada, 86 , 50; 10) Sao Tome and Principe, 52 , 30; 11) Comoros, 17 , 10;


Cinnamon Cultivation

True cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. The best cinnamon is said to grow along the coastal strip near Colombo. Until fairly recently efforts to grow it outside of Sri Lanka were largely unsuccessful and the Seychelles was the only place it had become naturalized. But now it is grown in a lot of places.

In the wild, cinnamon trees grow tall, with broad trunks. Under cultivation, the shoots are continually cropped almost to ground level. The result is a low, dense, leafy bush that continually produces new stems for bark. Cinnamon grows best in low altitudes in a hot, wet, tropical climate. The tree produces yellowish white flowers that have an unpleasant smell and yield dark, purple, berries. Both the leaves and bark are aromatic.

Cinnamon comes in the form of “quills” — strips of rolled bark which have had their outer bark scrapped off. The finest varieties are pale in color and very thin. Processing is relatively simple. The outer bark, cork and inner lie are stripped of the stems. The inner bark is left to dry completely. After it curls into quills it is harvested. Several quill are rolled together, which is then cut into uniform lengths and graded according to thickness, aroma and appearance. Sometimes it is ground into a powder.


Cardamon is grown in India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Tanzania. The wild version of the plant can still be found in southern India. Cardamom is one of the most ancient spices and one of the most expensive (only saffron costs more). A member of the ginger family native to the Western Ghats region of southern India, it has a warm sweet and aromatic aroma, with camphorous, lemony and eucalyptus undertones, and is particularly popular in the Middle East, where it used as a flavoring for coffee. It is also used in a variety of foods and drinks in India and northern Europe.

The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a teeth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used as perfume. Vikings that traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and was mentioned a number of times in Arabian Nights .

Cardamon comes from small, brown-black sticky seeds found in the pods of the cardamon plant. The pods are 5 to 20 millimeters long. The dried pods are rough wrinkled and have a texture like sandpaper. The pods are sold whole. The seeds are sold whole or ground. It is best to buy the pods or seeds whole. Ground cardamon quickly loses its flavor.

The cardamom bush reaches a height of 16 feet and has green flowers with a white, purple-veined tip and long tuberous, green leaves that are up to two feet long and six inches wide. The pods are found on leaf stalks that grow near the ground at the base of the plant.

Cardamon has traditionally been grown in partially cleared tropical rainforests, leaving some trees for shade. Today it is grown mostly on partially shaded plantations. The pods are collected before they open so the capsules don't split open during drying. They are dried under the sun or with smoke from burnt coconut husks, roots and branches, and sometimes bleached with sulphur fumes.



Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) India, 217856 , 382600; 2) China, 187227 , 328810; 3) Indonesia, 109520 , 192341; 4) Nepal, 100558 , 176602; 5) Thailand, 91962 , 161505; 6) Nigeria, 79717 , 140000; 7) Bangladesh, 43870 , 77046; 8) Japan, 28356 , 49800; 9) Philippines, 15680 , 27538; 10) Cameroon, 6263 , 11000; 11) Malaysia, 5887 , 10340; 12) Sri Lanka, 5722 , 10050; 13) Bhutan, 5620 , 9870; 14) Ethiopia, 5124 , 9000; 15) Côte d'Ivoire, 4669 , 8200; 16) Republic of Korea, 2027 , 3560; 17iji, 1393 , 2448; 18) Costa Rica, 543 , 955; 19) United States of America, 464 , 816; 20) Mauritius, 403 , 709;

Ginger is a highly aromatic spice with a pungent, flowery and lemony taste. Mentioned in the sacred writings of Confucius and in the Koran, it has been cultivated in China for over 3,000 years and has a long history of use as a medicine. In India, it is regarded as an aphrodisiac and is mentioned in the Kama Sutra . A 15th century tract prescribes an ointment made of honey and ginger for “Increasing the Dimensions of Small Members and Making Them Splendid." In some places it is chewed to ward off evil spirits.

Ginger is one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe. It imported from India as far back as Greek times. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was used to ward off the plague and for a while was so popular it was placed in the table like pepper and salt. In 19th century Britain it was sprinkled in beer (the source of ginger ale) and placed on the back of horses to get them moving.

Ginger is cultivated from rhizome cuttings. It grows best in rich, well-drained loam in tropical climates with a pronounced, heavy rainy seasons and a hot dry season. The plants shoot in ten days and are harvested after nine to ten months. Ginger comes from a creeping, perennial, evergreen plant indigenous to tropical India and China. Contrary to what most think ginger is not a root. It is a rhizome, an underground stem that grow sideways rather than down and has roots of its own. The erect stem of the plant is between one and three feet tall. The leaves are bright green and six to eight inches long. Small yellow-green flowers grow in clusters from the leaves.



Top Clove Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Indonesia, 127687 , 80929; 2) Madagascar, 15777 , 10000; 3) United Republic of Tanzania, 15619 , 9900; 4) Sri Lanka, 6295 , 3990; 5) Comoros, 5522 , 3500; 6) Kenya, 1577 , 1000; 7) China, 1301 , 825; 8) Malaysia, 315 , 200; 9) Grenada, 31 , 20;

Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds of the cenkeh , or clove tree, an evergreen tree related to myrtle. Grown primarily in Indonesia, Zanzibar and the West Indies, cloves are about a half inch long with a knob at one end with unopened pedals. The word "cloves" is derived from the French word for nail, chou , a reference to the cloves shape.

Strongly aromatic and sweetly pungent, cloves are used as a flavoring and scent for mulled wines, chewing gum, perfumes, toothpaste and Indonesian cigarettes. The oil of cloves, derived by distillation with water, has antiseptic properties and is an ingredient in soaps, ointments and drugs. Synthetic vanilla is made from eugenol an ingredient of clove oil. Cloves are a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. In the past they were prescribed as cure for toothache, bad breath and a low sex drive.

Cloves originated from Ternate, Tidore and Bacan, Indonesian islands in the Moluccas. They were mentioned by the Chinese in 400 B.C. During the Han dynasty Chinese were permitted to address their emperor only once their breath has been sweetened with “odoriferous pistols” — a reference to cloves. Cloves were delivered to the Romans by Arab traders and prized as a medicament in medieval times. The Dutch cultivated cloves trees on the Molucca Island of Ambon and had a monopoly on the trade until the French introduced them to Zanzibar and the neighboring Pemba.

Cloves grow best is cool, moist air like that found in the hills not far from the sea. Cloves need a rain fall of a least 60 inches and a dry season for harvesting and curing, The bulbs are first pale in color, and then turn green. They are harvested by hand when they are bright red, before the buds open. They are dried on palm mats and are dark brown when they dry.



Top Nutmeg Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Guatemala, 40180 , 28000; 2) India, 22171 , 15450; 3) Indonesia, 12341 , 8600; 4) Nepal, 11688 , 8145; 5) Bhutan, 8323 , 5800; 6) Grenada, 4018 , 2800; 7) Lao People's Democratic Republic, 3874 , 2700; 8) United Republic of Tanzania, 1004 , 700; 9) Malaysia, 861 , 600; 10) Sri Lanka, 574 , 400; 11) Honduras, 502 , 350; 12) Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 229 , 160; 13) Trinidad and Tobago, 222 , 155; 14) Ethiopia, 143 , 100; 15) Kenya, 71 , 50; 15) Malawi, 71 , 50; 17) Saint Lucia, 43 , 30; 17) Togo, 43 , 30; 19) Madagascar, 14 , 10; 20) Dominica, 7 , 5;

Nutmeg is the bright red and black kernel (seed) of a yellow, edible, apricot-like fruit from the nutmeg tree, a large evergreen, native to the Moluccas (the Spice Islands in Indonesia). The "filmy" red membrane of fruit that coats the nut is the source of mace, another spice which has a flavor quite different from nutmeg. The nutmeg kernel is an unreal-looking red color that looks hand painted.

Nutmeg itself is poisonous. Only a small amount of it should be eaten. The flavor and fragrance comes from myristica, a mild, poisonous narcotic. Other chemicals are similar to those found in the rave drug ecstacy. Nutmeg has historically been a hypnotic agent. Some people take it to get high. Large amounts can induce hallucinations, epileptic-style seizures and even death.

Nutmeg trees grows best in volcanic soils in slightly elevated areas near the sea in hot, humid tropical climates. They need shade trees to protect them form the hot tropical sun and grow best in dense tropical rain forests. Saplings are produced from seeds sprouted in nursery beds and transplanted to plantations. The trees take about five years to flower. Female trees are desired because they produce more fruit. When they mature the male plants are thinned out so that the nutmeg-bearing females predominate at a ratio of 10 to 1.

Nutmeg trees bloom and bear fruit the entire year. They bear fruit for 50 or so years, reaching their peak when they are 15 years old and producing steadily less and less after that until production dwindles to nothing. The fruit are ready to harvest when they are yellow in color and the air is filled with a sweet smell. A single tree can produce up to 2,000 nutmegs a year.

After the nutmeg fruit is harvested the sour, tough, almost woody outer pulp is removed. In Indonesia it is regarded as a delicacy and preserved in syrup. Under the husk is a lacy scarlet fiber covering (the aril). Under the mace is the nut-like pit. Inside this is the inch-long ridged nutmeg seed. The seeds are slightly wrinkled and dark brown on the outside and light brown on the inside.

Workers cut the fruit with a paring knife and leave it under the tree so the mace and nutmeg dry in the sun. The mace is striped from the nuts and is dried and flattened between boards. The nuts are dried until they rattle and then they are shelled. At the mill, the mace is ground into a powder while the nuts are usually shipped whole to preserve their flavor. Nutmeg powder loses its flavor quickly. Low quality nuts are ground and used to make "oil of mace" or nutmeg butter.


Pepper and Peppers

Black pepper comes from peppercorns. It is used as a seasoning and belongs to the Piper genus. Hot peppers belong to the Capsicum genus. The two are unrelated an the confusion over their names can be traced to Columbus (also the sources of the confusion of American Indians and Indians from Indian) who called the New World Capsicums peppers because he believed he was in the spice growing region of India. [Source: Jim Robbins, Smithsonian] Other

Hot peppers and bell peppers belong to the Capsicum genus. They originate from the New World but now are found almost everywhere. There are dozens of different kinds of peppers and they come in all shapes and colors, from purple to orange to deep red. Peppers are the podlike fruits of leafy plants that grows two to four feet high and have white flowers. Botanists can't make up their mind whether they are a fruit or berry. No matter what color they are when they ripen all peppers come from pods that are green before they ripen.

There are two basic types of capsicums: 1) mild or sweet varieties; and 2) hot and pungent varieties. Most mild varieties are relatively large. Chiles, pimentos, paprika and cayenne are all varieties of hot pepper. Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and Java have traditionally been the sources of peppercorns for pepper but Sri Lanka is no longer one of the top 20 producers.

Pepper is the world's most commonly used spice. It accounts for 60 percent of the spice trade and comes from the dried berry (peppercorn) of the Piper nigrum , a climbing vine that originated in the tropical forests of the Malabar coast of the southwestern India and was introduced from there to other tropical places.

Most of the pepper sold comes in four forms: 1) whole black pepper; 2) ground black pepper; 3) whole white pepper; 4) ground white pepper. All come from the same berry. Europeans prefer the milder whiter pepper. Americans like the more pungent black pepper. A richer flavor comes from peppercorns, white or black, that have been freshly ground.

Pepper Agriculture

Pepper needs a warm climate and lot of water. It grows best in tropical areas with high rainfall and thrives particularly well on the Malabar coast in southwest India which receive rain from two monsoons and is covered with hills that provide good drainage.

There is really no such thing as a pepper plantation. The vines are often grown on trees in backyard gardens, tea plantations of jungle-like plots among other plants such as vanilla orchid vines, tea bushes, nutmeg trees, coconut palms, betel nut trees and coffee bushes. Pepper grows best on tall poles or other supports or the straight trunks of trees such as palms or silver oaks which are sometimes used as windbreaks.

Pepper vines have ribbed, leathery, dark green leaves. They reach a height of 12 to 15 feet. The flowers bloom after the rains It takes seven or eight years for a vine to reach maturity although berries appear two or three years after planting.

The berries emerge yellow, turn green and hang in clusters like red currants when they are ready to be harvested. Workers climb pyramid-shaped or one-legged ladders and pick the berries by hand and place them in sacks attached to their belts.

Peppercorns are dried in the sun for five or six days. They are set down on any flat surface, including roofs, courtyards and roadsides. As they dry the berries, shrivel, harden and turn black.


Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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