Plant champions

Some gardening enthusiasts in Singapore go to great lengths to build up and care for their collection

One plant-lover tends a lush mini-garden inside the bedroom. Others have multitudes of pots that take over balconies or let their greenery bask in artificial light for 12 hours a day.

Plant collectors are taking gardening to the next level and often share a happy predicament: They lose count of how many plants they own.

Take, for example, Mr Cultura Daryl, 28, who collects carnivorous plants and is part of a growing group of plant hobbyists, who are perhaps no different from wine or car collectors in their passion.

He started gardening about three years ago, with edibles such as Thai basil and cherry tomatoes. Later, he bought a Venus Flytrap and a pot of sundews -both carnivorous plants - from a nursery, without knowing how to care for them.

They soon died. But that only spurred him to find out more about how to grow them and kicked off his "obsession" with acquiring carnivorous plants.


  • Many hobbyists bring in plants from overseas to enhance their collection. But do not flout the law.

    You can buy plants from overseas as long as you have an import permit from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and phytosanitary certification from the source country.

    The certificate is meant to show the plant has undergone pre-departure inspection and treatment and is free from any live pests harmful to plants.

    From January to July this year, there were 488 cases of illegal plants or plant products seized at border checkpoints. Last year, there were 564 cases.

    Plants without phytosanitary certificates will be detained at Singapore border checkpoints. Travellers who are caught may be fined. Confiscated plants may be claimed if they meet AVA's plant health standards and requirements. Otherwise, they will be destroyed.

    Download AVA's mobile app, SG TravelKaki, or go to its website ( for information on what plants are allowed, the requirements and how to bring them into Singapore.

While he has stopped collecting Venus Flytraps, he has branched out into keeping begonias, jewel orchids, cacti, succulents and pitcher plants.

Aside from placing them around the house, he has two 1.2m tanks in his bedroom that are fitted with artificial lights. He lives in a four-room Housing Board (HDB) flat in Jurong West and works as a temporary staff member at the National University of Singapore.

"I've stopped counting the number of plants I have as I am always acquiring new ones, or other plants die or are traded away," he says. "I definitely consider myself obsessed. Most people my age are more focused on their careers and getting married, while I am investing a lot of time in my plants."

He takes between a few minutes and half an hour every morning and night to check on his plants for signs of growth, pests or diseases. He spends more time during the weekends to repot them or get new greenery and supplies from nurseries.

Like Mr Daryl, extreme plantsmen go to great lengths to build up and care for their collection. They buy from nurseries around the world, including Europe and South-east Asia, take part actively in international and Singapore forums, as well as trade plants with enthusiasts.

Many will also centre their collection on a beloved species.

Secondary school teacher Gary Ong, 34, has more than 1,000 cacti and succulents - a collection that grew too big for his five-room HDB flat in Serangoon that he moved the plants to a rented plot near Sungei Tengah two years ago.

He pays a monthly fee of about $200 for the 860 sq ft plot. As he works in Choa Chu Kang - near his plot - he checks on his plants almost every other day.

He goes online to find plants on sale from foreign nurseries or on eBay and even flies overseas. Since he started his hobby in 2008, he has been spending a few hundred dollars every month to grow his collection and on materials. But he has scaled back as he has run out of space.

The bachelor, who started with cheap cacti that were on sale at nurseries here, says: "If you are a serious collector, price isn't an issue. I like searching for plants that are different - rare plants or those that have interesting colour and form. These can be more difficult to propagate.

"You can also create your own hybrids. There's joy in being able to show what's in your collection and grow and multiply them, " says Mr Ong, whose rarest plant is the Haworthia Yamada Black, which costs about $1,000.

Dr Wilson Wong, a horticulturist at the National Parks Board, says the hobbyist plant scene has grown over the years. He is the founder of Green Culture Singapore, a gardening website that he started on his own in 2004. Its official Facebook page has about 3,000 members.

Dr Wong, 37, who also writes the Root Awakening column in The Straits Times, has noticed a younger set drawn to the community. "In the past, gardening and collecting and growing of specific plant groups were not popular with the young. In recent years, there's been an increase in the number of people aged under 30 who are into serious plant-collecting and honing their plantsmanship."

Dr Wong is hooked on growing plants of the Haworthia and Gasteria species, which he imports from nurseries in South Africa and Thailand. The succulent plants are drought-tolerant and require minimal attention - only weekly watering and no pruning.

Dr Wong, who lives in a five-room flat in Hougang, built multi-tiered shelves in a spare bedroom and installed racks on his window grilles. He has about 300 pots that sit under artificial light 12 hours a day.

The bachelor says: "In some way, I'm doing ex-situ conservation of these species at home. There are too many hybrids to collect and this can be likened to collecting stickers. It never ends."

But it is never purely a numbers game for collectors.

Primary school science teacher Cindy Chiang, 43, likes the challenge of growing something difficult.

She collects and grows carnivorous plants from genuses such as Drosera, Byblis and Nepenthes. The latter is also known as tropical pitcher plants or monkey cups.

She estimates that 200 to 300 plants are sprouting in the balcony, bedroom and by the window sills in her five-room HDB flat.

As a child, she was intrigued after her father described a Nepenthes that her grandfather used to cultivate. She would later see it in a science textbook.

She has pursued her passion for 20 years and would go to the library to borrow books or take notes in the reference section. "It was as if I was writing a research paper," she says. She also "shamelessly hounded" professors in the United States and elsewhere via e-mail for information.

Ms Chiang, who is married to a sales engineer and has a seven- year-old daughter, says: "There are plants that people tell us can't be grown in Singapore, but I try to push the limits."

However, these plant-lovers say they never let their collection dominate their lives.

Art director Phillipe Noor Shaffarruddin, 36, has two plots that he has rented for the past three years. He keeps much of his collection of begonias, orchids and ferns there and some in tanks and pots at his family home. His room in the four-room Choa Chu Kang flat is a tight squeeze, but his plants and gardening materials are parked neatly at the side.

He is waiting for his own two-room flat to be completed in 2019 and plans to move all his plants there and give away those that do not fit.

Mr Noor, who got hooked on plants in secondary school, says: "The plants don't talk back to you and each has its own character - in the way that it reacts to the environment. You take care of the plants and they'll reward you."

The bachelor, who also loves staycations and travelling, asks a friend to check on his plants when he is away. He adds: "I'll draw the line when the hobby becomes a chore rather than something I enjoy."

Penchant for African violets

Ms Isabelle Lee shares her bedroom with about 50 pots of African violets and slipper orchids. The beauties are stacked on racks or placed in big plastic containers in the 24-year-old's bedroom.

Her balcony - big enough for only two or three people -has miniature orchids grown on fern bark.

Unlike her friends, Ms Lee is more captivated by plants than social media. "I may not be as up to date with the latest online trends as my friends, but I enjoy growing plants as they are interesting and can be challenging," she says.

The only child lives with her parents in a condominium off Upper Bukit Timah Road.

While she enjoyed gardening as a child, Ms Lee started taking the hobby seriously only in her third year at Republic Polytechnic, where she studied environmental science. She recently completed a double degree in human resource management and management from Kaplan Higher Education Academy.

Space is a constraint, so she "trains" the plants to stay smaller by removing their outermost leaves and chooses miniature plants to grow.

When she buys young plants from overseas growers or at fairs here, such as the Singapore Garden Festival, she uses her pocket money that she has saved up.

Besides reading up online, she taps on the knowledge of the sellers to learn to grow the plants better. For example, she learnt that placing a piece of tissue over a tight crown of leaves helps them get filtered light.

Her green fingers have impressed more experienced gardeners.

Ms Lee, who volunteers with the Nature Society (Singapore) and Gardens by the Bay, says: "They are amazed as they can't keep some plants alive. I want to grow more African violets, but my parents tell me to stop as there isn't any more space."

A lifelong hobby

Lawyer Russel Low, 41, has no qualms about being labelled an "extreme" plant hobbyist.

About half his 7,000 sq ft semi-detached house in Clementi is covered with a plethora of plants. Some encroach on the driveway, so he manoeuvres carefully when he parks.

"I'm one of a handful of people who go all out. I have a few thousand plants, so any available space is premium space. I definitely have one of the more unusual gardens in the neighbourhood," says Mr Low. He also has five dogs, which remain mostly indoors.

He has always been a keen gardener, but started collecting seriously in 2007, and focused on growing bromeliads and Costus, a genus of ginger.

Since then, he has gone on to collect succulents, tillandsias (air plants), xeric plants and trees - which do not need much water - as well as rare tropical plants and orchids.

While the bachelor has an enviably huge collection, he is not gunning for a record. Gardening simply relaxes him. "There are people who collect plants without being gardeners. I've grown plants from seeds and enjoy watching the growing process. That's an achievement to me, rather than claiming I have a particular plant in my collection."

Mr Low, who gets his plants mainly from the United States, Europe and Thailand, has tried growing rare plants and even hybridising Costus.

"The rarity is obviously a plus as they are not easily found or grown. To succeed is amazing. But every collector goes through heartbreak as he tries growing different plants."

Mr Low has to make concessions for accumulating so many plants. He tries not to take long holidays so he is not away from his plants too long, although most of them do not require much water.

His family "tolerates" the vast number of plants they have to live with, he says.

Whatever free time he has throughout the week is spent clearing up the garden and maintaining the plants. Being a plant collector is not a passing phase. "I don't think I will stop collecting plants. It needs to come from the right place, then it's a lifelong hobby."

His own Garden by the Bed

People make the journey to admire Gardens by the Bay, but Mr Siaw Yu Zhang can claim that he has a personal "Garden by the Bed".

The 19-year-old, who is serving his national service (NS), wakes up to a collection of begonias in his room. He keeps some in two 1.2m-long fish tanks chock-a-block with small pots of begonias - his speciality.

Then, there are metal racks which he installed and are lined with plastic containers of more begonias. He propagates many from leaf cuttings.

The enterprising youth even found professional grow lights from Finland - a better option than the amateurish artificial lights he started out with.

Mr Siaw, whose father is a lawyer and mother works in a technology company, is the eldest of three children. The family lives in a landed property in Seletar and Mr Siaw shares a room with his 12-year-old brother.

Mr Siaw started growing begonias outdoors last year, but the heat "steamed" them and they wilted, he says.

This year, he set up his bedroom "laboratory", where he monitors the temperature in the tanks and ensures that it does not go above 30 deg C. This mimics the natural living conditions of begonias, he says.

His efforts have paid off. Besides growing them well, he has even managed to get an orange flower sprouting from one of the species - a rare occurrence.

Mr Siaw can rattle off information about growing the finicky plants as though he has been studying them for years. However, his love for begonias is rather recent.

About eight years ago, his grandfather gave him a pitcher plant. His parents later bought him some more. He got so good at growing them that he even self-published a book, XYZ's Experience With Growing Tropical Pitcher Plants In Singapore, two years ago.

Then, he started cultivating begonias.

Mr Siaw, who began funding his passion by selling some of what he grows and now also uses his NS pay, says: "Their leaves are colourful and I thought they were difficult to grow. I killed some at the start when they were growing in my garden, but they did better when I moved them to my room."

He has also landscaped the garden at the side of the house and created a mini-nursery at the back of the property. Inside the 473 sq ft shaded space is a big collection of pitcher plants, among others.

Mr Siaw says this is just the beginning. He will study horticulture at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2018.

"My friends call me a plant freak, but there are too many begonias I want to grow.

"It's like Pokemon - I want to catch them all."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Plant champions'. Subscribe