One of the real highlights of our trip was visiting Singapore's Botanic Gardens, a world famous institution established in 1859 that has now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden is beautifully designed and maintained, and popular with Singaporeans as well as tourists, with over four million visits logged annually. It's also a major center for the study of tropical botany and horticulture; its collections of plants, rare books and herbarium specimens are extensive and serve as a critical resource for research on the region's flora. What's more, it's really fun to visit, with cool educational exhibits like the "Evolution Garden" that walks you through the history of flowering plants as they developed over millions of years (the Cycads section is shown above).
The garden has a park-like layout with many winding paths and grade changes. It's enormous, and divided into many areas of specialized collections and theme gardens that make it impossible to see everything in one visit.
The Orchid collection is famous here, comprising over 1000 species and 2000 hybrids, many presented in stunning displays that rival any perennial border in England or Rose garden in the U.S.
Here, pastel-colored Dendrobium hybrids are bedded out with red Costus woodsonii, a South American ginger.
There are plenty on display for those who prefer a more vivid color palette, like this Papilionanda hybrid, 'Bangkok'.
And amazing blends of more subtle tones... this is 'Ninja', a Dendrobium cultivar that caught my eye.
The lawn looks a little worse for wear, but attests to the popularity of these gardens with locals and visitors alike.
After gorging on the incredible colors and forms of the Orchid collection, we headed to the Fernery for some soothing green. I had to keep reminding myself that all these plants are growing outdoors, not in a conservatory!
Another restful area was the lush Ginger Garden, a collection of plants related to the culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale), which has over 3000 relatives, many grown for decorative purposes.
There are many beautiful water features throughout the garden... above, the Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and below, the queen of Water Lilies, Victoria amazonica.
Perhaps the greatest treasures other than the National Orchid Collection are the magnificent tropical trees scattered throughout the grounds. Some of them, like the Mengkulang (Heritiera elata) on the left above, with its curiously furrowed and folded trunk, are survivors of the original jungle that once covered the island of Singapore. This particular tree was first catalogued in 1908, the first of its species to be recorded scientifically. On the right is an enormous Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) planted in 1934. Kapoks are fast-growing and were once an important commercial product of the tropics. Prior to the invention of synthetics the fluffy seed coating, similar to cotton, was used extensively for stuffing pillows, toys and life preservers.
One of the most impressive collections is the wonderful variety of palms. In the "Palm Valley", many species are arranged around a huge lawn that slopes down to a concert shell, like an exotic Tanglewood!
Some of the most unusual palms we saw are, on left. the Red Sealing Wax Palm (Cyrtostachys renda) a clumping palm native to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. Right, above: the Ruffled Fan Palm or Vanuata Fan Palm (Licuala grandis) and the silvery Satra Palm (Bismarckia nobilis) from Madagascar.
Two more palms we loved: a hedge of Lady Palm (Rhaphis excelsa) and impressive specimens of the Umbrella Leaf Palm (Johannesteijmannia altifrons), a beauty that hails from the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo.
A rarity, now endangered in most of its native range, is the Double Coconut (Lodoicea maldavica) a dioecious palm from the Seychelles. The nut is considered the largest seed in the world and takes 7-9 years to mature. The Singapore Botanic Gardens is fortunate to have several specimens, both male and female.
The Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is considered the largest succulent in the world... kind of like a gigantic Jade Plant. Highly adapted to dry climates, its massive trunk stores water, and can survive leafless for nine months of the year. To me it always looks like something from a Flintstones cartoon!
It's fun to see plants we normally consider houseplants used as groundcovers and perennials! This is the "Donkey Ear" from Madagascar, Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri.
Here's a crazy cool thing we saw a couple of places in our travels: the Curtain Ivy (Cissus verticillata). The foliage is pretty nondescript but the aerial rootlets that hang down, absorbing moisture from the humid air, are spectacularly curious. Here it's grown over a pergola but we had dinner under an arbor of it at a restaurant in Cambodia... very memorable!
We also saw many varieties of Bird-of-Paradise (Strelitzia), one of the most widely grown flowering plants in Southeast Asia. The Singapore Botanic Gardens has an extensive collection in one area, massed in large plantings.
Bougainvilleas are ubiquitous in Singapore, seen mostly in screaming shades of magenta, fuschia and hot pink, but we found this soft melon color to be more soothing in the heat and humidity.
That's my personal tour, hope you enjoyed it and please take my advice... if you're ever in Singapore make a special effort to visit this incredible resource... you won't be disappointed!
As some of you already know, my husband Kuan is Singaporean, so we're in Southeast Asia visiting family for a couple of weeks. And of course while here, I had to check out some of the gardens and plant life in this lush, exotic and humid part of the world!
First stop, Singapore...a very clean, modern and westernized city. Among all the skyscrapers and high rise apartments there are still some vestiges of British Colonial architecture, like the courtyard garden at the Raffles Hotel, left above, and a Presbyterian church.
The original Main Post Office has been converted to a hotel, and these colonial period administration buildings are now upscale boutiques and salons.
Even though the city is completely developed, the concrete is mitigated by the exuberant plantings everywhere... all the streets are tree-lined and even the freeways are bordered with dense plantings of Palms, Bird-of-Paradise, Bougainvillea, Cordylines, Ficus and many other tropicals unfamiliar to me. One of the most commonly seen is "Flame of the Forest" (left above) aka "Poinciana", Delonix regia. It's grown as a large street tree as well as pruned into a shrub. And I was really wowed by the huge Bird's Nest Ferns and other epiphytes that adorn almost every tree trunk!
Frangipanis are seen everywhere too, in several colors, but I think the clean white one (Plumeria alba) is the most beautiful. The fragrance isn't heavy, like a Gardenia, but light and sweet... more like an Azalea.
Orchids, Orchids everywhere... the national flower of Singapore and used as freely as we use red Geraniums back home. Mynah birds are always around too, begging for crumbs and vocalizing loudly, much like our Starlings (in fact they are related) but seem so much more exotic.
Next, on to Bangkok for a long weekend! Love of plants is universal, and people grow things wherever and however they can manage, as seen in these Thai houses along a canal.
Our time to explore gardens was limited, but we managed to visit one place on our must-see list: the Jim Thompson Museum. Thompson was an American ex-pat, a Princeton trained architect who fell in love with Thailand while stationed there in WWII. In the 1950's he assembled a group of six traditional Thai wooden houses, furnished them with a stunning collection of Asian paintings, sculpture and ceramics, and surrounded them with a lush tropical garden.
The garden is a series of courtyards enclosed by the six buildings and a high outer wall. There are few flowers to be seen... shade, greenery and water features are used to provide a sense of coolness and tranquility in this very hot climate.
Water bowls are placed throughout, with tiny fish, like minnows, to keep them free of mosquitoes. On the right, an antique Chinese post is used as a garden ornament.
Orchids in antique porcelain pots add color in the cool, open spaces beneath the raised houses.
A doorway is kept off limits with a garland of dried Gomphrena blossoms, a flower we commonly grow here as a summer annual.
Not everything in Bangkok was charming... while walking in a park we saw this HUGE Monitor Lizard slithering out of a drainpipe. Ewww. And don't even ask about the public toilets.
Small caveats aside though, I'd highly recommend a trip to Thailand... friendly people, fantastic food and lots to see... I hope we'll be returning to explore more of this beautiful and fascinating country.
That's all for now... next post: Singapore's world class Botanic Gardens!
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.