Established in 1859, the Gardens has stood a silent witness to Singapore’s tumultuous history; colonial rule, World War II, the Japanese Occupation, and also its meteoric rise from Third World to First after independence. From the majestic Tanglin Gate, to the refurbished colonial houses, to the little arrows etched into a small flight of red brick steps by Allied Prisoners of War, a stroll into the Gardens is a walk down memory lane.
But this emerald oasis, where every leaf and bark and trailing vine conspires to create a green refuge, is no timid observer of history; the Gardens has also contributed many milestones to Singapore’s rich tapestry. The country’s first recorded zoo was established on these very grounds back in the 1870s. It was also here that orchid expert and the first director of the Gardens, Henry Ridley, examined, sketched and described Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, in 1893. Under the tenure of Ridley, the Gardens was also the test bed for experiments in rubber planting that would eventually prove significant in the success of rubber as a commercial crop in Malaya. The Gardens was also where Professor Eric Holttum, the Gardens’ third director, developed an orchid breeding technique which stimulated the region’s orchid industries then and is still used today. Even the iconic Tembusu tree, one of 47 Heritage Trees in the Gardens, has been accorded a rare distinction – being featured on the reverse of Singapore’s $5 notes. It is easy to understand why, with its unusual lateral branch photographed countless times.
Upon entering the Gardens, a canopy of sound envelops you as the chirping of cicadas fill the air. With each step, the air gets fresher as you leave the hustle and bustle further and further behind. Even your eyes feel energised as you take in the luxurious greenery – the grass, the flowers, the plants and the trees. And your senses seduced by the delicate perfumes of the different blooms. The sights, sounds and smells all come together to create an Eden-esque experience created by what can only be the hand of God through a succession of dedicated caretakers and keepers of the garden.
Over the years, the Gardens has become such a multifaceted attraction that there is something for everyone. Apart from welcoming joggers young and old, the Gardens often plays host to picnics and gatherings held amidst nature. In the olden days, it was the meeting place for families to introduce partners in arranged marriages; now, the gazebo next to the Swan Lake and the Bandstand has also adorned numerous wedding photos. Facing gently sloping lawns and surrounded by Symphony Lake, the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage has also basked in the limelight of performances which draw sizeable weekend crowds of picnickers and music lovers. A leading institution of tropical botany and horticulture, the Library and Herbarium house over 750,000 preserved specimens from around the region within the Gardens and serves as an important reference point for research. The influx of numerous eateries has even made it a hotspot for foodies. Indeed, the Gardens is truly a people’s garden in more ways than one.
Having come so far in Singapore’s transformation into a Garden City through its work in plant research, education and conservation, it would be difficult to imagine the Gardens playing anything less than a leading role in Singapore’s green future. If any deserves to wear the verdant crown of Singapore’s City in a Garden accomplishment, it is this 155-year-old grand dame who will surely wear it best.
Photo Credits: National Parks Board