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Learning Forest at the Botanic Gardens: Paradise regained

Discover the splendours of a wild and wondrous natural land at the Botanic Gardens' Learning Forest

A century-old "lost world" filled with giant trees and creatures that crawl, glide and flit opened to the public last Friday.

Playing host to birds like the stork-billed kingfisher, and plants such as the pelawan tree with its rainbow-hued trunk, the Learning Forest at the Botanic Gardens was developed by the National Parks Board (NParks) in a project that cost $30 million.

The site within the Gardens' Tyersall-Gallop core, now home to two habitats - freshwater wetlands and lowland forest - has a long history which can be traced back to the early 19th century.

The Learning Forest is divided into five areas - The SPH Walk of Giants, the Lowland Rainforest, Keppel Discovery Wetlands, Bambusetum, and Wild Fruit Tree Arboretum. Highlights include canopy beds, orchid islands and marsh plants.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) pledged $1.2 million towards the development of outreach programmes for the walk, while Keppel Corporation gave a donation of $2.08 million.

The Botanists' Boardwalk (left) and the elevated walkway (left, below) are part of the Keppel Discovery Wetlands in the Learning Forest. The boardwalk features different plants which have been collected from around South-east Asia and named in honour
The Botanists' Boardwalk and the elevated walkway (above) are part of the Keppel Discovery Wetlands in the Learning Forest. The boardwalk features different plants which have been collected from around South-east Asia and named in honour of the Singapore Botanic Gardens' pioneers. The network of boardwalks and elevated walkways allows visitors to explore the different habitats from wetlands to rainforests. The Keppel Discovery Wetlands restores the area's existing water sources by creating a linked series of five water bodies that connects to Swan Lake. The wetlands also include Discovery Trail, Pulai Marsh and Orchid Islands. Pulai Marsh is the Botanic Gardens' first attempt to recreate a freshwater forest wetland. Maps from as far back as the 1860s show there was formerly a stream running through the area, and staff who surveyed the site found many plant species which normally exist in freshwater forest wetlands as well. One of the trees there is the Marsh Pulai, which gives the area its name. The Orchid Islands showcase a large number of native orchids, many of which have been conserved through NParks' conservation programme. Singapore has 228 species of native orchids, of which 170 are considered extinct, 50 are critically endangered, three are vulnerable and only five are common. Most have disappeared due to deforestation for the cultivation of plantation crops in the 19th century. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Sharing the story of the space, Gardens' director Nigel Taylor said a secondary rainforest had developed there naturally over time with some help through the dispersion of seeds from the Botanic Gardens' primary rainforest.

This secondary forest had grown wildly at the southern section of the Learning Forest site.

The Botanists' Boardwalk (left) and the elevated walkway (left, below) are part of the Keppel Discovery Wetlands in the Learning Forest. The boardwalk features different plants which have been collected from around South-east Asia and named in honour
Community tree planting during the official opening of the Learning Forest of Singapore Botanic Gardens last Friday. A group of about 160 – comprising residents from the Tanglin Neighbourhood Committee and Ulu Pandan Community Club, as well as students from the National University of Singapore, Yuan Ching Secondary School, Tanglin Secondary School and Nanyang Girls' High School – took part in the tree-planting event. They planted 80 trees from 20 different species. The Learning Forest is a new conservation core of the Gardens. Visitors can access a network of boardwalks and elevated walkways to explore wetland and rainforest habitats. Highlights include the Keppel Discovery Wetlands, the SPH Walk of Giants, a bambusetum, as well as a showcase of wild fruit trees. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Meanwhile, the northern part of the site had at one point housed a British military hospital, according to an aerial photograph from the 1950s. In its place today is a recreated freshwater wetland.

Taking into account these historic roots, NParks said the eventual design was decided by the original topography of the space.

The Botanists' Boardwalk (left) and the elevated walkway (left, below) are part of the Keppel Discovery Wetlands in the Learning Forest. The boardwalk features different plants which have been collected from around South-east Asia and named in honour
What’s a little rain when there is a proliferation of bamboo to marvel at? The Learning Forest’s bambusetum features 30 species of Asian bamboo, one of which is the giant bamboo – Dendrocalamus giganteus – which can grow up to 10 storeys high. Its stems are wide enough to be cut up and used as buckets. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The landscape centres on a low-lying base that gradually meanders up into the dense secondary forest, before dipping gently again.

Visitors can trace these layers via a looping boardwalk that will lead them up to a height of 8m without having to climb any steps, said Ms Ng Yuin-Mae, director of development at the Gardens.

The Botanists' Boardwalk (left) and the elevated walkway (left, below) are part of the Keppel Discovery Wetlands in the Learning Forest. The boardwalk features different plants which have been collected from around South-east Asia and named in honour
Visitors lying on the canopy web (above) at The SPH Walk of Giants. The rope bed allows visitors to experience the feeling of being on top of a tembusu tree. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

She added: "You get to go up to the canopy without feeling that you are climbing a hill."

This "rolling hill quality" of the landscape is a reflection of the Tanglin area, said Dr Taylor, adding that the name Tanglin was likely derived from the term "twa tang leng", which means great east hill peaks. It referred to the numerous hills that were in the area.


Visitors walking and holding umbrellas under the rain in the Learning Forest at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on April 1, 2017. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

To create the 10ha Learning Forest - the size of 15 football fields - NParks conducted analyses of the soil, topography and hydrology of the area. Following surveys, the habitats were restored to conserve a wider variety of native flora and fauna. Most of the native and mature plant species within the site were either retained or transplanted near to their original spots.

To restore the site's existing wetlands, NParks planted three different vegetation belts of plants, mimicking the naturally occurring segments found in freshwater wetlands and lowland forests from Singapore to south Johor, as one moves upriver towards the coast.


Visitor at the interpretive shelter taking photographs of the orchids at the Orchid Islands, one of the features in the Keppel Discovery Wetlands, in the Learning Forest at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on April 1, 2017. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

This was reproduced from the findings of former Gardens' director EJH Corner, following his exploration of Mandai's wetland and Johor's Sedili Rivers in the 1930s.

On the future of the green marvel as a whole, Dr Taylor said it can only get taller, denser and richer.


A visitor taking photograph at the Pulai Marsh, one of the features at the Keppel Discovery Wetlands in the Learning Forest at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on April 1, 2017. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

For instance, the already stunning collection of old and tall trees is set to be overshot by the "real giants", said Dr Taylor.

"This is the beginning of a new garden and if you can come back in 100 years, you would see a much more mature landscape. Our children and grandchildren will see huge trees there one day where today we see only small saplings."

Discover the Learning Forest
Find out about the highlights of the century-old forest recently unveiled at the Botanic Gardens, such as the SPH Walk of Giants and Keppel Discovery Wetlands. http://str.sg/488N

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Paradise regained'. Print Edition | Subscribe