• SHARE

The Gardens: That is how many locals refer to them. Just The Gardens. As if there were no other, as Bonnie Tinsley wrote in “Visions of Delight.”

Overlooked by the crowds, Singapore’s Chinese Gardens are pleasantly quiet.

There are none, in truth, quite like Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, though Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya Gardens come close.

Covering 47 hectares in the Tanglin district, their first director was Henry Nathaniel Ridley, a mustachioed, hyperenergetic Briton with piercing eyes and a keen interest in everything from theosophy to rhinoceros beetles. Ridley added 50,000 specimens to the Gardens. He also had a thing about rubber. He would carry seeds with him to social events and press them on fellow guests. “Mad Ridley,” they called him derisively, or “Rubber Ridley.”

How little they knew. When Malaya’s coffee crop collapsed as a result of disease and Brazilian competition, Ridley’s rubber seeds (collected from just 22 plants) were suddenly in such demand that requests for up to a million seeds a day poured into the Gardens.

The 1900 “Rubber Rush” basically changed the face of the ASEAN region — and brought economic success to the Gardens. In 1955, with justifiable pride, Ridley (celebrating his 100th birthday) wrote, “It is a great delight for me to have lived to see Malaya so prosperous and the Gardens the Best Tropical Gardens in the World.”

Mind you, it’s been touch and go.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese the Gardens were pitted with shell craters and trenches, and littered with war materiel. Three of the lawns had been converted to demonstration plots for growing vegetables. Mercifully, gunfire had spared the priceless Herbarium.

Whatever else went on during the Imperial Army’s turbulent occupation, however, the Japanese did right by the Gardens. Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University immediately assumed control and evicted the military. Perhaps with a direct mandate from the Emperor, Tanakadate retained the British directors to administer and assist in repairs.

The Gardens sailed out of the turbulent seas of war in a lot better shape than most of Singapore, and kept getting better. Visitors today will find an expanse of glowing green ranging from lush patches of the original tropical rain forest that once swathed all of Singapore to billiard table-smooth lawns decorated with somnolent Singaporeans.

Singapore’s Botanic Gardens offer the fecund variety of the tropical rain forest.

“It’s too green,” is a perhaps surprising complaint of some visitors. There is a reason. Flowers bloom most extravagantly in areas that experience seasonal change. Pollination in such zones can only occur at limited times, so plants are compelled by competition to show off. Singapore, lying just 137 km north of the equator, falls short in the “we have four seasons” department, and its endemic plants are more reticent than their temperate, subtropical or even subarctic counterparts.

The rarity of color in much of the Gardens, however, makes its occurrence more aesthetically pleasing. It startles, then welcomes one’s gaze.

Those who insist on bright pinks, mottled purples and tumescent reds are advised to visit the Gardens’ orchid collection, which houses 60,000 plants, 700 species (including the 2-ton tiger orchid) and 1,200 hybrids.

Orchids have been described (by me, actually) as herbal pornography. Many mimic intimate feminine body parts with an unnecessarily suggestive enthusiasm. Perhaps that is why growing them is so popular, orchid poaching is a major problem in national parks worldwide and why, in the Gardens’ infancy, the orchid collection was bedeviled by thefts.

If it’s size that counts, the Gardens boast specimens of the coco-de-mer, an endemic Seychelles palm whose seeds resemble two conjoined coconuts. Once believed to grow out of the navel of the Indian Ocean, they were valued by medieval Italian politicians as a proof against poison. As late as the 18th century a single seed could fetch $4,000. This is the largest (1.5 meters long), heaviest (18 kg) seed on earth.

Sun-bathers bound for the Seychelles beaches take note. Pack helmets.

If you want to say it with flowers — in this case with the flowers of the Corypha umbraculifera, otherwise known as the Talipot palm — then you’ll need a pickup truck to help you deliver the message. This palm produces the largest inflorescence in the plant kingdom, with as many as 60 million flowers per tree hanging in great drooping plumes.

Listing all the Gardens’ features would be boring. Go see it. Buy a guidebook when you get there and it will explain what’s what and where. Admission is free. Serious botanists won’t need this column to tell them that the Gardens house a Herbarium stocked with more than half a million preserved specimens available for academic research, or that the library has 20,000 books. Amateur gardeners can enroll in any of the many inexpensive short courses offered by the Gardens’ School of Ornamental Horticulture.

While on the garden trail in Singapore, don’t ignore the Chinese Gardens. These are tucked away beside the Singapore River estuary. Most people do ignore them, which results in a serene, other-worldly calm. Monitor lizards pad heavily past pagodas or swirl through lily pools beneath red-arched bridges. Some 300 bird species have been recorded in Singapore, and the Chinese Gardens ripple with bird song.

A more somber experience is a visit to Fort Canning Park. Tall trees throw gloomy pools of mosquito-haunted shadow. The underground bunker here, where the Allied forces made the decision to surrender in 1942, is now an eerie museum called the Battle Box that re-creates in holograms the events that led to Singapore’s fall and the subsequent horrors of the Burma Railway. The place gave me the creeps.

A cheerful antidote to Fort Canning lies beneath the hill in the Singapore History Museum’s Goh Seng Choo Gallery, which is currently running a gorgeous exhibition of botanical art commissioned from local Chinese artists by Major General William Farquhar, Commandant of Singapore from 1819-1823. The drawings and paintings mix high standards of scientific accuracy with the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art.

The result here, as in all Singapore’s gardens, is East meeting West and both gaining immeasurably from the interaction.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.