Sam Popham – a man ahead of his times.
The WNPS would like to add its voice to the many tributes paid to someone who has left a lasting impression on the ecological history of our land. “Sam” Popham, creator of the Popham Arboretum in Dambulla passed away in an Assisted-Living facility in England, a few months ago, at the age of 99.
Sam Popham's arboretum was developed using a method known as Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR) and would be part of the modern “Rewilding” trend we see. But back in the day, it was his thought process which led to the popular “Popham principle”. “ANR is one important method used in restoration ecology. This method is a relatively simple, low-cost technique where growth of natural forest seedlings is assisted and encouraged. This method controls grasses and excludes creepers and thorny shrubs to promote natural seedling growth. Removal of epiphytes, dead branches and pruning in competitively dense canopies are done as routine activities to promote the growth of natural forest seedlings” (NIFS website).
Born Francis Home Popham in Portsmouth, Hamshire in 1923, “Sam” was educated at Eton and Magdalene College Cambridge, where he graduated in History. It was his formative years in Boxgrove, West Sussex which likely fostered his love for nature. He first came to Ceylon as a young British Naval Officer during the Second World War. Based in Trincomalee, he would often travel through Dambulla admiring the forest vegetation on either side of the Dambulla-Bakamuna road. Back home in England after the war, Sam became a schoolmaster for a while, before returning to Sri Lanka in 1952 as a Tea Planter. 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. In 1963, he bought seven and a half acres of scrub jungle (abandoned ‘Chena’ land) in Dambulla and commenced his life’s most important work- Returning wasteland to nature- conserving the unique biological diversity of the ‘dry zone’ of Sri Lanka. Self-taught and with steed and determination, Sam spent 50 years restoring a jungle in Sri Lanka, while all around, there was massive deforestation and land grabs taking place within our new independent Sri Lanka. He deservingly won the Sri Lankan Conservation award in 1992. The original house was designed by none other than the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, to somewhat resemble parts of a ship and linking the thought with Sam’s arrival to Sri Lanka. Bawa would in later years be back in the very vicinity to design the famed Kandalama hotel.
This arboretum was administered for 15 years on behalf of IFS until 2020, by the “Ruk Rekaganno” (Tree Society of Sri Lanka) movement. Gifted to the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS), Kandy in 1989, the arboretum now has 34.5 acres with the addition of 27 acres in 1989, through the initiative of Prof Cyril Ponnamperuma, a former IFS Director. When Sam retired in 2003 the arboretum was managed by Mr. Jayantha Amarasinghe, his trusted assistant and next Curator (who has also now retired), while Sam continued to stay closely connected with it, until his demise. Fondly called the “gasmahaththaya” (The Man of trees) in the locality, his love for his adoptive land put him among an elite band of nature lovers of foreign origins who have worked hard to preserve this beautiful country as much as any son of the soil. His nephew Dr. Philip Popham stays connected with the arboretum, but Sam’s legacy lives on through the many folks he engaged with in the vicinity, and through his beloved trees in the property. Thank you and rest gently in Peace, Sam (a few internet based sources are acknowledged with gratitude).