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Singapore Botanic Gardens: History and Living Heritage

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Did you know the Singapore Botanic Gardens once contained a zoo? Yes, from 1870 until 1906, there were enclosures for wild deer, lions, tigers, alligators, and monkeys! The zoo drew an audience as a popular entertainment venue and a source of revenue for the park. At that time, the present Gardens’ most famous Heritage tree, the giant Tembusu pictured on the back of the $5 note, was only a tiny seedling.

The British Garden Tradition

The inspiration for Singapore’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and first National Park goes all the way back to 1822, when Sir Stamford Raffles started a small garden of native spice plants on the slopes of Fort Canning. An avid naturalist, Raffles was trained in the British colonial tradition to explore native plants as potential resources (crops) of economic value.

Singapore’s Agri-Horticultural Society started the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SGB or the Gardens) in 1859. The Society’s initial idea was to create a pleasure garden on an abandoned nutmeg plantation site. The first construction created landscaped terraces and flower beds on the hill, which would become Bandstand Hill. In 1866, Swan Lake was built, and vehicle access roads were paved. In addition to the zoo, this early version of the Gardens hosted flower shows and musical events.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens Comes to Life

In 1874, the colonial government took over the management of the Gardens and started the transformation of this garden park of flowers and amusements into a place of botanical interest.

Around this time, botanists at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in Victorian England were experimenting with cultivating rubber tree seeds collected from Brazil (Parà Rubber). Kew Gardens then sent tree seedlings to Singapore and Malaya for trial cultivation. Research was also conducted at the Gardens on other plants of potential economic value, such as coffee, tea, cacao, sugar cane, oil palm, rubber, pineapple, and cardamom. The successful commercialization of several key crops was a historic advancement in horticultural knowledge. It also led to the impressive economic growth of Singapore and many other British colonies.

Singapore & the Rubber Industry

In 1888, Henry Ridley became Director of the SBG. He is famous for discovering a significant innovation in rubber tapping. His experiments found that the most cost-effective way to extract latex is to use a V-shaped cut to the tree’s bark. This cut increased latex yield without causing lasting harm to the tree. Regarding economic impact, 70% of the world’s rubber plants originated from Henry Ridley’s rubber trees grown in the SBG. A plaque near Symphony Lake labels the stump of the last remnant of these trees.

“This is the original site where eleven seedlings of Para Rubber were first successfully planted in 1877. These rubber trees gave rise to the birth and growth of the plantation rubber history, first in Peninsular Malaysia and subsequently throughout the world.”

Home of Orchid Hybridization

Another historic milestone of the Gardens was the orchid breeding program that commenced in 1928 under Director Eric Holttum. Some scientific instruments used in his laboratory experiments are housed in the building that bears his name. Today, Holttum Hall is the Gardens’ Heritage Museum, which helps tell the backstory of Singapore’s huge industry in producing orchid hybrids. The VIP Orchid Garden was created in 1956 to display hybrid orchids named in honor of dignitaries and celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth, Jacqueline Onassis, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Historically, SBG is the most visited botanic garden in the world, and the most visited place in the Gardens, since its creation in 1995, is the National Orchid Garden. This colorful orchid collection includes over 60,000 blooming plants displaying the unique beauty of over 600 hybrid species. After 163 years, the Singapore Botanic Gardens remains a living laboratory of scientific research and education and a national treasure of heritage, conservation, and recreation in Singapore, the Garden City.

Text and Photos by Meg Farrell Sine. Meg has lived in Singapore (very near the Botanic Gardens) for 4 ½ years after several other expat postings in SE Asia and Brazil. Besides writing, Meg enjoys quilting, bicycling, and traveling.

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