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