The Singapore Botanic Gardens are part of a preserved rain forest that was established in 1859 when the city was a trading post under the British. The rain forest still exits, all 6.2 hectares of it, with trees as tall as 45m and home to 314 species, many rare or endangered. There is a hike you can take through the forest but don’t do it if there is a storm brewing (and you never seem to know in the tropics).
This is a region without seasons, just one degree north of the equator with a daily temperature range of 23-33 degrees C and yearly rainfall of 2,400 mm. Plants grow well here.
The idea of a national garden started in 1822 when Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore and a devoted naturalist, developed an experimental garden near here. From the beginning the garden was committed to collecting, growing, experimenting and distributing potentially useful plants for both Singapore and the region.
Today the garden has 7,000 species and occupies 63 hectares. Yet it is remarkably close to the city centre and easy to get to by MRT (Singapore’s rapid transit system). It is divided into three zones, each with its own lake. I spent most of my time in the Central Core around the Symphony Lake, which is where you’ll find the Orchid Garden and Visitor Centre.
There are several specialist gardens including the National Orchid Garden, which is a favourite of visitors. Orchids are the largest family of tropical flowering plants and this garden is home to 60,000 plants and has over 1,200 species and about 2,000 hybrids. The plants are organized for seasonal colour with yellow and golden in spring, pinks and reds in summer, and deep reds and purples and snowy white in winter.
The National Flower of Singapore is an orchid called Vanda Miss Joaquim after the woman who first grew it. It is one of the many orchids that can be seen here. I am of the opinion that it is difficult to grow a bed of orchids that is pleasing to the eye for most plants seem to need support and the bed can look rather rigid. However, a great deal of effort has been made to blend the plants into a more relaxed landscape. They have also included a few of the less showy orchids, which I tend to find more appealing.
There are many gardens to wander through. If you want to start with the earliest plants on earth then look for the Evolution Garden, which then evolves to mosses, ferns, conifers and finally to the flowering plants.
There is the Healing Garden with 400 varieties of plants that are used medicinally, particularly those traditionally used in Southeast Asia. This garden is organized by parts of the body, such as those that would be used to treat the respiratory system, those for the head, and so on.
The Ginger Garden celebrates the importance of gingers in Asia, from the diversity of species, their importance as spices and medicines, and their ornamental value.
The Palm Valley has almost as many native palms (46 species) as in the whole of Africa (about 50 species). The Umbrella Leaf Palm has the largest undivided leaf of any plant in the world and all four species are grown here, three of which were once considered endangered by extinction.
One reason gardeners visit places like this is to see plants they would never see at home and I seem to be most attracted to the unusual ones. There is a ‘cool’ house here where the temperature drops at night to 15-19 degrees C so that plants from the tropical mountains can be grown. These include insectivorous plants like the native pitcher, which has pitchers dangling at the tip of the leaves that are half filled with liquid and insects drown in it.
There’s the yellow Ensete lasiocarpum, a small ornamental native of Yunnan known as the Golden Lotus Banana or the Chinese Yellow Banana and fed to pigs. And so many more, some that I captured on my camera but neglected to find out the names. So they will just be labeled “weird”.
The Singapore Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to wander around. The paths are well labeled (this is Singapore after all) and there are many places where you can sit and get out of the sun for a while. That said, the gardens are extensive and the walk back to the MRT can be a little much at the end of the day so you may choose to break your visit up or arrange to be dropped off/picked up closer to the Visitor Centre.
This garden is a fine example of Singapore’s commitment to green space and of its latest goal of extending the “garden city” to being a “city within a garden.”
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012