Stuart ReadSingapore Botanic Gardens: 5 things to LOVE

• Rubber ‘n’ Spice: Economic Botany power house
• Orchids: Exotica – science meets commerce
• Dipterocarps: rainforest ark in a City-State
• Dynamism: great team – catalysing regional capacity
• High wire act: balancing rapid change / newness with history / richness

When I visited, the man master-minding ‘Gardens by the Bay’ was lured from retirement after having successfully re-wired Singapore Botanic Gardens, setting a cracking course, just capped off by that Botanic Gardens’ welcome World Heritage Listing. The man now running the Botanic Gardens, Dr. Nigel Taylor and his dynamic team continue great work improving, renewing, conserving and promoting these wonderful gardens.

Dr. Tan on a whistle-stop tour of Gardens by the Bay – some ‘retirement’!

Dr. Tan on a whistle-stop tour of Gardens by the Bay – some ‘retirement’!

Why listed? As an exemplary tropical colonial ‘empire’ botanic garden from the 1860s.

Rubber & Spice: this was the place whose 1880s-90s trials in rubber cultivation and tapping-techniques made Singapore and South-East Asia ‘rubber capital’ of the world, snatching that crown from Brazil. Spices, fibres and other crops were tested here for colonies and settlements around the Straights, Malay Peninsula (now Malaysia) and neighbours. Importation, trials, supplying plantation managers led to vital industries that continue to nourish regional economies: ‘economic botany’ of yore when empires were built on such – think tea, coffee, chocolate, palm oil…

Museum display of rubber tree trunk with tapping scars

Museum display of rubber tree trunk with tapping scars

nutmeg (and mace) fruit, Myristica fragrans, Economic Collection

Nutmeg (and mace) fruit, Myristica fragrans, Economic Collection

Sign in the Healing Garden

Sign in the Healing Garden

Orchids: commerce-led horticulture and cropping morphed into more ornamental and horticultural pursuits – and Singapore’s colonial botanic garden went with it, re-purposing into collecting native flora and experimenting with the rich orchid life of South East Asia. Cataloguing and understanding what is endemic or local, testing and breeding are key pursuits. Hybridising orchids since the 1920s – crossing different genera and back-crossing, has led to the explosion of colours and forms that are orchids today. This garden remains high on any ranking of global orchid centers. Past Directors such as Eric Holttum and Dr. Kiat W. Tan did much to put it there, collecting, hybridising, displaying, promoting. Better still the interested public today, from school children to grandfathers, tourists, whatever, can look straight into laboratories with tissue culture flasks, benches with scientists working on orchid hybridisation. This ‘window into the science’ and back-room tours help demystify these wonderful plants, and some of the whiz-bang tools by which they can be brought into being.

one of the public’s windows into orchid breeding and micro-propagation lab work

one of the public’s windows into orchid breeding and micro-propagation lab work

A programme of naming orchid hybrids after visiting dignitaries or honouring celebrated locals means regular visitors to the gardens and ongoing interest. A smart move. Propagating endangered and rare orchids and re-planting these on trees or in parks across Singapore’s system of greenway roads and parks has meant a safer future for some species, practical conservation and education.

National Orchid Garden – detail of entry to and display boards in Tan Hoon Siang shade houses (since redeveloped)

National Orchid Garden – detail of entry to and display boards in Tan Hoon Siang shade houses (since redeveloped)

Tiger orchid – this plant (c3m tall x 5m wide) is some hundreds of years old. A whopper, hard to capture!

Horticultural staff lived in cottages on site until 1974, learning their trade from generation to generation. Moving staff off site led to a School of Horticulture (1972-99), continuing to train and develop skills. This today is the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology (CUGE), a joint venture of National Parks and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency. It provides professional training in urban greening, ecology, landscape management and horticulture, offering certificates to up skill this sector and certify professionals. CUGE also undertake research, job placements and career advice to this growing industry.

Adaptive-reuse of redundant staff cottages –

Adaptive-reuse of redundant staff cottages – E.H.Corner House is now an elegant restaurant with interpretation of this important early director, his outdoor office as well as his residence

Dipterocarps are canopy emergent rainforest trees whose seedling leaves (cotyledons) are paired and winged. These distinctive forms dominate a type of closed forest peculiar to this region.

Dipterocarp seed showing twin ‘wings’

Here come plenty of seedlings, in the Nursery

Here come plenty of seedlings, in the Nursery

Sadly extensive and ongoing logging means that many dipterocarp species today are endangered. Certainly you are extremely lucky to come across giant veterans, upright.

Towering canopy of a dipterocarp rainforest tree

Towering canopy of a dipterocarp rainforest tree

That a 6 hectare chunk of pre-colonial forest and revegetating fringes survive in the middle of madly-urban Singapore is a gob-smacker. The adjacent Tyersall Learning Forest area, with c.1905 secondary lowland rainforest values has potential as an additional research and educational resource. That the Gardens’ fore-runners had the foresight to protect it, amid or alongside cleared areas for crop trials originally laid out in the 1860s for pleasure and recreation, and from 1874 taking on a more scientific (‘nursery of empire’) role is a wonder.

Ficus kerkhovenii, Johore fig – a critically-endangered ‘strangler’ fig in the rainforest section

Ficus kerkhovenii, Johore fig – a critically-endangered ‘strangler’ fig in the rainforest section

This forest today is a green lung in the midst of fast and extensive urban development. And all the more welcome as contrast and relief. Not just for humans either. Its offspring are marching down Singapore’s streets and greenways – the Gardens took a leading role in helping ‘Garden City’ (now ‘City in a Garden’) effectively re-greening the city-state. This was a Prime Ministerial policy from the late 1960s, advising on trees and other plant species for its streets, parks and green links. While much of this is now devolved to NParks, the Gardens continues to advise and assist – e.g. propagating and re-introducing endangered orchid and ginger species into the open space system. NParks’ vision is ‘Let’s make Singapore our Garden’. One of its six thrusts is ‘Establish world class gardens’ (of which SBG is a vital part), along with ‘Rejuvenate urban Parks and enliven our streetscape’, ‘Enrich biodiversity in our urban environment’, ‘Engage and inspire communities to co-create a greener Singapore’ and ‘Enhance competencies of our landscape and horticulture industry’.

Dipterocarp buttressed trunk and ‘heritage tree’ sign

Dipterocarp buttressed trunk and ‘heritage tree’ sign

Trials with mulch on root zones of young replanted (duplicates of rare surviving) dipterocarp rainforest tree species

Dynamism is one good word for the staff of this institution who continue in a proud tradition of leadership in this part of the world. For many decades led by Directors sent from and trained at Royal Botanic Garden, Kew (UK), a custom of educating, training and working to up-skill local staff led to native-born Directors and management. It today means training workshops, joint collecting expeditions, funding and support for a range of other botanic gardens across this biodiverse region. Borneo, Sarawak, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma and more are near-neighbours, all with rich floras, little-studied or understood, let alone used. A programme of cooperative partnerships with nearby countries in botanical surveys, research and publication, in addition to training on site and remotely, strengthens the gardens’ scientific and educational functions.

Just a couple of SBG’s more general or popular publications. Many more are online at https://www.sbg.org.sg/

Just a couple of SBG’s more general or popular publications. Many more are online at https://www.sbg.org.sg/

Retention and building not only living but conserved (library, bibliographic and visual reference) collections, herbarium specimens (including fungi, micro-plantlets in vitro and specimens preserved in spirits/alcohol) maintain the Gardens’ historic role as one of the leading centres for research and support in identifying and classifying the super-rich biodiversity of the region, particularly peninsular Malaysia. This allows reference comparison of material by researchers, logistical and other support and training opportunities.

High-res. scanner digitising fragile type specimens so they can be handled and uploaded onto the internet, i.e. used without damaging the originals

High-res. scanner digitising fragile type specimens so they can be handled and uploaded onto the internet, i.e. used without damaging the originals

Managing Change: as in any heritage place, particularly a living one such as a garden, change is inevitable and welcome. Managing it while conserving and sustaining the very things that make it ‘heritage’ is a challenge, a high-wire act. More so in a public open space with ready access in a big city. Even more so in a tropical climate. A series of over 40 significant heritage trees have lightning conductors on them, in case of strikes, which Singapore gets. High standards of maintenance by teams dedicated to particular sections mean that damage by animals like squirrels, monkeys and large birds, storms or weather (erosion, broken or fallen branches), humans (large events, wear and tear, rubbish) are swiftly reported and repaired. Retention, propagation, replanting long-term replacements and active maintenance of a range of landscape features such as Swan Lake (1866), the Palm Valley (1879), Potting Yard area (1880s), The Dell (1882), sealing wax palm avenue (1905), frangipani, palm and orchid collections, Sundial Garden (1929), Bandstand (1930, replacing a c.1860 one), brick steps constructed during World War II, Symphony Lake (1974, evoking lost Cluny Lake of 1891) help conserve the cultural landscape as a rich and layered one, expressive of its age and changing curators’ foci. Continuing displays and development of the National Orchid Garden remind visitors of vital work done on classification, hybridising and releases.

School group examining a display of Vanda ‘Miss Joachim’, Singapore’s national floral emblem

School group examining a display of Vanda ‘Miss Joachim’, Singapore’s national floral emblem

Botany today has shifted focus from medicinal and economic crop-led-export income to one of conservation, ecology and education. Singapore too has evolved from a colony to an independent nation with distinct priorities and aspirations. The gardens have been used as a site fostering national integration and unity – by Lee Kwan Yew, e.g. multi-cultural celebrations held here in 1959. It has a high number of visitors, c.4.4million per annum. And growing numbers of school children, who understandably love its diversity and frankly wonderful children’s gardens. The Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden was Asia’s first, and a huge success. It is being expanded in area, with ambitions to broaden its target audience to include teenagers.

Some happy little punters in the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden

Some happy little punters in the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden

The broader public is increasingly well-catered for: the Holttum Hall Museum has displays on the history and evolution of the Gardens, a new CDL exhibition Gallery currently has an exhibition on medicinal and cultural uses of herbs and other plants in the Malay or Peranakan community.

Multi-lingual Healing garden sign in Tamil and English, others in Malay and Chinese, reach out to diverse communities, making the point that each knows and values plants for differing medicinal and cultural reasons

Multi-lingual Healing garden sign in Tamil and English, others in Malay and Chinese, reach out to diverse communities, making the point that each knows and values plants for differing medicinal and cultural reasons

Alongside is an ongoing parallel programme of guided heritage and other walks and rollout of new signage highlighting and explaining heritage trees and other features. And three new subway stations are open or being built (2015-20) allowing far better access for all Singaporeans to their gardens: bravo!

Make sure you visit Singapore Botanic Gardens next time you’re in Singapore – it rewards closer scrutiny.

Heritage ‘Five Dollar’ Tembusu tree – note fencing to keep public off root zone; purpose-designed lower branch supports that can be cranked up / down, supporting branch weight and prolonging longevity

Heritage ‘Five Dollar’ Tembusu tree – note fencing to keep public off root zone; purpose-designed lower branch supports that can be cranked up / down, supporting branch weight and prolonging longevity

A tree known to every Singapore five-dollar note user!

A tree known to every Singapore five-dollar note user!

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Stuart Read

About Stuart Read

Stuart Read is a horticulturist, heritage bureaucrat, tour-leader and talk-giver who loves landscapes and gardens. Trained in science, horticulture and landscape architecture, he has gardened and studied gardens in Australasia, Cuba, the Middle East, England and Spain, leading a tour of Spanish gardens in 2010. His writings include Demi-sec: Spanish lessons for Australian Gardens... (2005). He co-authored Interwar Gardens – a guide to the history, conservation and management 1915-1940 (2003), The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens (2002), and magazines like Australian Garden History and Heritage NSW.

11 thoughts on “Singapore Botanic Gardens: 5 things to LOVE

  1. Sandra Pullman on said:

    Excellent article Stuart and fabulous photos. What a great place. Really like their propagating endangered orchids and then growing them on trees around the city and parks. What a fabulous thing to do. Wish City of Melbourne would do that to some of our endangered plants, like plant them around the city and teach people about them.

    • Thanks Sandi – it’s such an interesting place and I was lucky meeting and discussing management issues and visions with its dynamic team. Great to see expanding school program/syllabus engagement (primary & secondary) and active ‘Friends’ group, etc. So many tentacles with plants to explore!

  2. I spent several delightful hours in the SBG last September. I’ve never seen such an immaculate collection of plants, especially the orchids. And it was wonderful to see how much it was used and enjoyed by the locals, doing tai chi, jogging (in that humidity!), out for walks with babies in prams…. The Healing Garden was most interesting. I met many plants ‘in the flesh’ for the first time that I’d only read about before and it was fascinating to learn about their role in Chinese medicine.

    • I spent several days there and would happily do it again. Given the urbanisation of its ‘catchment’ managing the locals and millions of visitors (like us) will be an ongoing challenge but I’m sure they’re up to it. I loved the healing garden too – and the evolution garden. Another innovation I didn’t mention is an exhibition gallery funded by private donations, featuring ‘green architecture’ but at present inside featuring a wonderful ex’n on Malay use of plants for medicine, folklore, religious and cultural uses – fascinating – again, some I’ve never heard of, others only in books/passing. Multilingual displays, interactive – really smart. Wilson Wong is on board and doing lots of good work renovating sections, enriching plantings and thinking a bit outside the square about engaging people: joggers, tai-chi-doers, strollers – he’s not the only one but terrific to sense some of the excitement they’re generating.

  3. oman on said:

    I like the botanic gardens better than Gardens by the Bay. Yes, it’s got those amazing supertrees but its a bit Disneyland. I think that the botanic gardens is better designed, and has got more nice plants and a lot less razzamatazz.

    • I’m sorry Oman I think I’ve messed up responding a couple of times now! I agree but I suspect their aiming at quite different audiences and that’s both fine and admirable. I wish more people saw horticulture and plants as exciting, vital to life and impressive – they are! Horticulture should be shown off as something that is both art and science – complicated, fascinating and good for us! I’ll of course be interested to see the shelf-life of GBTB and how it evolves with a fickle visiting public after the latest new thing. We’ll see. There has of course always been a market for ‘spectacle’ and it certainly delivers that, with elan!

  4. Great post Stuart. I visited two or three years ago and enjoyed the gardens very much. That dramatic remnant of Singapore’s tropical rainforest is extraordinary and I liked the boardwalks that allowed visitors to stroll through the primeval vegetation. But it did feel rather as if Singapore can’t quite allow all that scale and lushness and primitive disorder to persist without it being surrounded and constrained by the neat classifications and control of the botanical displays.

  5. Mark Corea on said:

    Well said Stuart and this coming from a Singaporean who now calls Melbourne home. It’s one amazing Garden city certainly by design intent but hoping there’ll be a generation there with the same passions (like the indefatigable Kiat Tan), to embrace and continue the rich horticultural traditions of their forbears, in that tiny island..

  6. I was disappointed by the Singapore Botanical Gardens when I visited there last year. While once a great botanical garden I felt that funds were being redirected to the air conditioned glass houses of Gardens by the Bay.

  7. Deb on said:

    Hi Stuart. We were in Singapore in March this year, and visited both the Gardens by the Sea and the Botanic Gardens (and the National Orchid Gardens). There was a special display because of the Chinese New Year and it was stunning. The orchids were so lush, and gorgeous. We fell in love with all. A haven in the heat – such serenity and beauty. We went to the Singapore Zoo as well, and it reminded us of the Gardens – amazing trees, foliage, flowers and tropical plants. And the Zoo, we believe, is one of the top 5 in the world. We think this is in no small part to the plant selection and placement. Absolutely beautiful. Thanks for reminding us of the Gardens. Wonderful.

  8. Nice work Stuart. I like the pairing of the Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens (Eden Project and Gardens of Heligan?), plus all that green in between.

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