The Singapore Botanic Gardens — An Amazing 160 Years of Living History

In May 1967, then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew introduced a “garden city” vision for the island nation. Today, residents and visitors alike benefit from the initiative that transformed Singapore into a city with abundant, lush greenery. And the Singapore Botanic Gardens could be considered the jewel in the city’s crown. However, the gardens date back to colonial times and tell the fascinating history of this sparkling Asian metropolis.

The History of the Singapore Botanic Gardens

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was created in 1859 when the colonial government granted land to the Singapore Agri-Horticultural Society to create a public park. Lawrence Niven, the Botanic Gardens’ first superintendent, immediately set about designing a garden to emulate the styles of the English Landscape Garden Movement — a layout that largely remains.

In the late 1880s, Henry Nicholas “Mad” Ridley, the Botanic Gardens’ director, led rubber cultivation. His success prompted Malaysian plantations to adopt his methods, which resulted in the Southeast Asian country becoming the world’s top producer and exporter of natural rubber. Today, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s rubber trees are believed to have originated in the Botanic Gardens, and Ridley’s extraction method remains the basis of the methods used today. However, except for a stump erected where the first rubber trees were planted, no such trees remain in the gardens.

During World War II, Japan occupied Singapore between 1942 and 1945. Hidezo Tanakadate, a professor of geology from Tohoku Imperial University, advocated for the Botanic Gardens and National Museum by not only safeguarding them from looting, but also paying the salaries of staff from his own pocket, thus enabling them to continue to operate as scientific institutions during this period.

The National Orchid Garden

Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1925 to 1949, Eric Holttum pioneered the hybridization of orchids at the institution. His work resulted in Singapore becoming and remaining one of the largest commercial growers and exporters of orchids.

Singapore Botanic Gardens
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

Opened in 1995, the National Orchid Garden sits on the highest hill within the Botanic Gardens and offers the most extensive collection of orchids in the world. The garden is laid out with plants arranged by color into four sections named after the seasons. “Spring” contains vivid yellows, creams, and golds. “Summer” is full of bright reds and pinks. “Autumn” includes the deep rusts and mature shades, and “Winter” offers the whites and violet shades.

The garden is home to 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids, with about 600 on display at any time. American and other international visitors will be pleasantly surprised to see some familiar names among them. That’s because, since 1957, Singapore has had a tradition of naming orchids after visiting foreign dignitaries and celebrities. For example, the lilac-flowered Dendrobium Michael Kors was named for the New York-based fashion designer on the opening of his flagship shop in the Mandarin Gallery in 2016. And Joe and Jill Biden had an orchid named after them in 2013 when they were in Singapore on a two-day visit to discuss Asian trade ties.

Corner House — A One-Star Michelin Restaurant in the Botanic Gardens

The Singapore Botanic Gardens offers several eateries, but gastronomes should perhaps make a point to reserve a table at Chef Jason Tan’s Corner House, a one-star Michelin restaurant. Inspired by the surroundings, Tan’s “gastro-botanica” cuisine truly puts the spotlight on vegetables. His signature dish, Oignon Doux Des Cevennes, is a fine example of the magic he can work with the simplest of ingredients. It has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 2014.

Corner House is located in the E J H Corner House, once the home of British botanist Eldred John Henry Corner. Assistant director of the Botanic Gardens between 1929 and 1945, Corner contributed significantly to the “greening” of Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation, he also helped protect the National Museum and National Library collections. Probably the last example of colonial Malay plantation architecture left globally, his impressive black-and-white bungalow was granted conservation status in 2008.

Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden

As much as history and botany buffs will appreciate Singapore’s beloved Botanic Gardens, it is designed to amuse the whole family. Thanks to the legacy of Jacob Ballas, a Jewish-Singaporean philanthropist, the Children’s Garden, reportedly Asia’s first, opened on Children’s Day, October 1, 2007.

A separate enclosure with its own entrance, the Children’s Garden includes a dedicated visitor center and cafe, playground with treehouses and slides, maze, and water play area. Interactive educational displays introduce children to the various uses of plants and the process of photosynthesis.

Finally, for those ticking boxes on a list of World Heritage Sites to visit, particularly in Southeast Asia, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is the third botanic, and first tropical, garden to have made its way onto the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP Strategy & Business Development

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David Geithner

David Geithner

David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP Strategy & Business Development

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