Singapore Botanic Gardens: A delightful breath of fresh air

Symphony Lake offers park visitors some quiet respite from the madding crowd.
Symphony Lake offers park visitors some quiet respite from the madding crowd.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Evolution Garden sits on what used to be housing quarters for the staff of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
The Evolution Garden sits on what used to be housing quarters for the staff of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Botanic Gardens’ Palm Court is a favourite spot for quiet activities.
The Botanic Gardens’ Palm Court is a favourite spot for quiet activities.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Madam Rashida Zali grew up in the Gardens’ staff quarters and has been working at the park for the past 37 years. She is now an assistant horticultural officer.
Madam Rashida Zali grew up in the Gardens’ staff quarters and has been working at the park for the past 37 years. She is now an assistant horticultural officer.ST PHOTO: JAIME KOH

Botanic Gardens exerts a strong pull for those seeking some quiet moments

BAND performances at night, flower shows and a zoo with animals including a leopard and four kangaroos.

More than 100 years ago, the Botanic Gardens was a popular pleasure ground and today it is still very much a draw, even if the animals now tend to be ducks and swans.

Ms Elizabeth Williams, 59, visiting from New Zealand, says: “The last time I was here was 30 years ago. But I had a free day on transit and wanted to revisit it. It’s just a lovely place to lose yourself in.”

Even after Gardens by the Bay opened two years ago, the Botanic Gardens, whose roots go back 155 years to 1859, is very much holding its ground. The 74ha park may be smaller than its 101ha counterpart at Marina Bay, but it has a bigger collection of different species of plants, numbering at least 10,000.

Nominated in 2012 as Singapore’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, the Botanic Gardens is also a top tourist attraction, with US travel website TripAdvisor ranking it the top park in Asia earlier this year.

“It was our first stop in Singapore because we heard so much about it,” says former forester Dick Pierson, visiting with his wife. They are from Seattle in the US.

“The orchids are fantastic and the maintenance is super. And it’s free, which is incredible,” adds the 73-year-old.

The park is famous for its more than 1,200 species of orchids and about 2,000 hybrids – the largest collection in the world. It also helped pioneer rubber cultivation and tapping techniques, leading to the economic boom in the rubber industry in the early 20th century.

Economic and scientific importance aside, the Botanic Gardens is simply a treat for the senses: Lakes with murky green surfaces are a foil to the bursts of colour, be it the burnt orange-yellow of the Saraca tree, the fiery red of the pagoda flower or the purplish blue of the morning glory.

It draws more than 4.4 million visitors annually, making it the most-visited botanic garden in the world and beating the likes of Britain’s 255-year-old Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

The grand green dame of Singapore is a hit with locals too.

Freelance writer and runner Colin Tung, 26, who is training to qualify for the SEA Games, says: “It’s a nice place for an easy run – it offers a natural environment that’s relaxing with all the trees and lakes.”

The high-rise tree cover and thick vegetation along the park’s perimeters shield visitors from the bustle of traffic.

University student Samuel Lee, 21, at the park on a drizzly afternoon, says: “I’m helping my uncle take pictures of nature – flowers, greenery – for his website.”

For some, the Botanic Gardens used to be home: Madam Rasidah Zali, 56, an assistant horticultural officer who has been working at the park for the past 37 years, grew up under the rambutan and palm trees there in the 1950s.

Living quarters for about 100 staff were located where the Evolution Garden is now, until they were torn down in 1979 to expand the entire park.

Growing up in the park instilled in Madam Rasidah a lifelong love of plants, but it also had its drawbacks. “Monkeys would go inside our house, and naughty boys would disturb and throw stones at them,” she says with a laugh.

Park visitors can still spot these mischievous critters, which have been known to pinch food from picnic-goers. Or they may see dogs being walked by their owners.

Law graduate Pamela Chan, 22, walking her corgi after a spell of rain, says: “The weather is good – at least it’s cool. Dogs love it here because they get lots of space to run and play.”

Come the weekends, families, couples and friends gather under tembusu trees, the most abundant tree species in the park.

Shrieks and shouts of children chasing each other ring out as adults catch up over picnics. By the lawn at Symphony Lake, young foreigners in local university T-shirts toss a frisbee.

The park is fecund ground, not just for flora, but also social bonding and familial relationships.

Financial consultant Sharon Tay, 37, who says she is a regular at the park, takes her three children, aged four, nine and 12, there for picnics and for them to play.

“We’ve made new friends with other families because the children play together,” says Ms Tay. “They like the open spaces, the nature, the...”

“... the air!” says her four-year-old daughter, Emma Paige.

“Yes, the air,” says Ms Tay, laughing. “The clean air that you just don’t get elsewhere.”