'Popham Method' founder passes away

Francis Home “Sam” Popham, creator of the world-renowned Popham Method, passed away in an Assisted-Living facility in England, on Saturday, May 28.

Sam Popham, as he was known to his wide circle of friends, leaves behind a legacy in the arboretum that he created and initially funded – now known as the NIFS Popham Arboretum in Sisirawatte, Dambulla (along the Kandalama Road), Sri Lanka.

Popham first arrived in Sri Lanka while serving aboard a Royal Navy corvette, which harboured in Trincomalee towards the end of the World War II. After falling in love with Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known), 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. Many of these original trees still live on in the arboretum. 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, 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. Sam Popham also periodically made several generous donations and gifts to the local community. He 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.

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 urbanization. Previously administered by the Tree Society of Sri Lanka, “Ruk Rakaganno,” the arboretum is now owned and managed by the National Institute of Fundamental Studies (NIFS).

The main “House” containing Popham’s original living quarters and office, was designed by his friend, the legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa. Its curved lines 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.

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. 17 species of bats have also been discovered there, as well as 77 species of butterflies, 83 types of birds, and 12 species of dragonflies. The first night-safari (in Sri Lanka) to view the Grey Slender Loris was conducted there by Amerasinghe, and since then, several other localities have followed suit.

The recently retired curator of the arboretum, Jayabuddhi “Jayantha” Amerasinghe, first worked for Popham in 1994. He later took over as 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 redesignated. Also thanks to his efforts, the arboretum has received the Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence for six years consecutively.

The legacy of Francis Home Popham remains a popular foreign and domestic tourist attraction, rewarding the quiet and patient visitor with some of the most unusual bird sightings.

L.L. Prasanna Ranatunga

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