The start of this story doesn’t feel quite relevant but bear with me as it all falls into place. It would have been, roughly, three years ago now that we were returning from our friends wedding in Thailand and had a 24 hour stop over in Singapore (before a late evening flight back to Australia the next day). We arrived at Singapore airport quite late in the evening after an exhausting day. Mina, Guy (Guy being a work colleague) and myself were sharing a room near Changi Airport. While Mina and myself walked straight through security and out of the airport, Guy was detained and we were left waiting an additional 2 hours while ‘Changi Border Security’ questioned his motive for having handcuffs in his bag. He had purchased them as a joke (so he says) from a Thai thrift shop so they weren’t real, but real enough for Border Security. He barely got out in time for us to make it on the last shuttle bus (for the night) to our hotel, but all’s well that ends well. We were particularly frazzled by now and were thinking about how to fill in the next day until our evening flight home. I suggested that we should visit these new gardens I had heard about with huge concrete trees filled with bromeliads, etc. Too tired to argue, everyone thought that would be good idea, so it was decided then. Next day with tired brains, spur of the moment decision making and zero research, we hopped on the train and went to the ‘Singapore Botanic Gardens’ and walked around looking for these giant structures (gotta be around here somewhere). We discovered later that the garden I was thinking about was actually called ‘Gardens by the Bay’ (right, I know, what a hell of an embarrassing story from a guy that’s supposed to be a Horticulturalist, but there you go). I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see the gardens I had planned to see, but we did have a good day and it did inspire me to come back to Singapore and visit both ‘Gardens by the Bay’ and ‘Singapore Botanic Gardens’ properly and with plenty of time up our sleeves. So here we go on take two of our visit to the ‘Singapore Botanic Gardens’ on ‘My Walkabout Plants’.
A Short History: The gardens were originally founded on their present sight in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society. It was designed by Lawrence Niven and part of a long colonial tradition of creating European style botanic gardens in the tropics from the 18th Century until today. The original layout plus the historical buildings remain almost entirely intact and have progressively been given conservation status between 2006 and 2014. In the early years the gardens played an important part in collecting, growing, experimenting and distributing potentially useful plants. One of its biggest successes was with Hevea brasiliensis (Latex rubber) that became a major crop that changed the whole region. (Sidetracking for a second, there are around 200 plants that ooze this milky white natural product including dandelions. Rubber has been a product used by man for over 1000 years but the demand these days is so high that synthetic rubbers are required, which are made in chemical plants using petrochemicals as their starting point. I thought this information important, just in case you’re ever on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ and its the final question, plus its interesting). Back to it. Today the gardens are recognized as a leading institute in tropical botany and horticulture with over 40,000 rare books and journals and 750,000 specimens in the herbarium collection. The Singapore Botanic Garden has over 4 million visitors annually making it the most visited botanic garden in the world. In July 2015 it was inscribed as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.
Mina and myself set out on this extremely humid (well it is Singapore) and overcast morning. The public transport system is very good around the city and there is any number of ways to get to the gardens by bus or train. We used the more touristy FunVee Hop on Hop off buses that continuously travel around the city stopping at all the major attractions, very easy to use and reasonably cheap. Most of the garden is open from 5am until 12 midnight which seems to be typical of tropical climate venues as many people enjoy coming out in the relative cool of the evening. We walked from the bus stop to the magnificent entrance that looked fit for the King. Then through an area that consisted of palms with soothing little fountains at their bases and on toward the National Orchid Garden (via the Jungle walk).
National Orchid Garden: This garden has around 1000 species and 2000 hybrids on display, a breeding program that began in 1928 and is today the largest display of orchids in the world. To visit this section of the garden there is a small charge but it really is a garden within a garden and you would be mad to miss out. Mina went crazy in here taking photos so I have attached some for your viewing pleasure.
Located within the Orchid garden is Burkill Hall. The building was completed in 1868 and named in honour of Isaac Henry Burkill (director 1912-1925) and his son Humphrey Morrison Burkill (director 1957-1969) who called this place home until 1969. The building itself is regarded as one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in Singapore in view of its special design for mitigating the local climate. One of its key designs is its steeply sloping pyramid shaped roof that extends far past the core of the bungalow protecting it from the fierce heat of the sun and torrential rain. It was restored to its former glory in the 1990’s as part of the National Orchid Gardens development.
From here we travelled further around the remainder of the ‘National Orchid Garden’ taking a look at the ‘VIP Orchid Garden’ that features Orchids (hybrids) named after visiting state dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela and Prince Williams and also the ‘Celebrity Orchid Garden’ that, like above, are named after visiting celebrities such as Jackie Chan. We visited the ‘Mist House’ and then the ‘Cool House’. Having come from a cooler climate where we have hot houses to represent tropical plants, I was blown away the first time I entered this house (first time was on our visit 3 years ago). You step out of the tropical heat and into a cool rainforest with a mountain stream in the middle. The plants and orchids in this house are representatives of higher elevation sites in the tropics. On this particular day I was hard pressed getting Mina out of this area. We eventually moved on though and through the ‘Arches of the Golden Shower’. An unfortunate name but they are named after the Oncidium goldiana (common name: Golden shower or Dancing lady Orchid) which was the first hybrid orchid produced by the ‘Singapore Botanic Garden’ in 1939.
From here Mina was starting to feel a bit faint from the heat (it was a particularly hot day even for Singapore) so while she returned to the Raffles building to find cool place to relax I continued on exploring the gardens. I travelled up a forested road that had (right at the end) a giant tree called Terminalia subspathulata which has been standing in the gardens for more than 150 years. It is a native to Singapore, however quite rare in the wild. At 47m tall it is one of the tallest trees in the garden even though it was struck by lightning in the 1980’s. I tried to get a good shot of this tree but there is no way I could get the grandeur of it so you will have to go and see it for yourself. From here I travelled down towards Swan Lake by numerous other small gardens that I could probably fill a book with.
Swan Lake: was constructed in 1866 (originally called Main Lake and First Lake). It covers about 1.5 hectares, is 4m deep and is home to numerous species of aquatic plants and fishes, and is named as such because of some beautiful mute swans from Amsterdam that glide gracefully across the lake. In the 1882 gardens annual report it was mentioned that a crocodile had taken up residence in the lake and had become dangerous after seizing one of the coolies (native labourer) while drawing water from the lake. The lake was drained to capture and kill the crocodile and while doing so water lilies and other aquatic plants were planted at the bottom of the lake. The lilies started to disappear in 1961 and the lake was drained again to discover turtles were eating them. Once they were removed the lilies came back including a rare blue lily that hadn’t been seen since 1953. The lake is today an important water source for the Tanglin core (old western part of the garden). Near the lake is the Singapore Botanic Gardens Heritage Museum which is 240sqm and was built in 1921 to serve as the Director of the Gardens’ office and laboratory, the two-storey building has been designated as an Urban Redevelopment Authority conservation building.
Evolution Garden: The ‘Evolution Garden’ is a fabulous section that takes you from the time prior to flowering plants right through to the modern world of 400,000 different flowering plants that we are blessed with today. At the entrance to this section of the garden there are actual large pieces of petrified wood that were buried in mud or ash millions of years ago. Over time the mineral-rich ground water (particularly silica) gradually replaced the wood turning it to stone (like Medusa but heaps slower). I saw these fossilized trees at both ‘Singapore Botanic Gardens’ and ‘Gardens by the Bay’. They are absolutely fascinating because you can still see where grubs, termites, etc have been chewing on the wood, so long ago. Interesting fact: the first trees were originally quite small but very quickly, in geological terms, grew very large. Now days fungus’s break down and decay wood quite quickly returning it back into the soil but at this time in history they hadn’t developed as quickly as the trees had. The dead trees of this time generally just fell over and were gradually covered over by mud and earth eventually being pressurized into the coal and oil deposits (that we are so desperate to exploit today). What is truly interesting is that that around 250 million years ago volcanic activity in Siberia caused large deposits of oil and coal to be burned into the atmosphere causing, what they now believe, was a chain reaction where a microbe called Methanosarcina released huge amounts of methane gases into the atmosphere. This event nearly wiped out all life on the planet through gradual suffocation. Ironically we are now doing the exact same thing, heating our earth to the point where the tundras are beginning to melt, areas where huge amounts of methane are frozen in ice. Just something to think about next time your enjoying breathing. Anyway, back to the story, this little track takes you through some very interesting gardens that resemble the time before flowering plants. It was widely believed that the first flowering plant was something similar to the magnolia but recently an ancestral waterlily has been proposed. Below I have included a few photos from my walkabout the ‘Evolution Garden’.
Fragrant Garden: was created to give an aromatic experience for visitors. It is also an ideal place to visit at night as many of the plants only give off scents in the evening.
Foliage Garden: is reasonably new and is designed to display terrestrial and aquatic plants with a wide range of shapes, colours and textures.
- Singapore Botanic Garden signs in garden.
- Visitors Map.