Singapore has long made green space an integral part of the island’s landscape, but none of its parks comes close to matching the refinement of the
Singapore Botanic Gardens
. Founded in 1859, the gardens were where the Brazilian seeds that gave rise to the great rubber plantations of Malaya were first nurtured in 1877. Henry Ridley, named the gardens’ director the following year, recognized the financial potential of rubber and spent the next twenty years persuading Malayan plantation-owners to convert to this new crop, an obsession that earned him the nickname “Mad” Ridley. In later years the gardens became a centre for the breeding of new orchid hybrids.
Recent additions have extended the park all the way north to Bukit Timah Road, where the Botanic Gardens MRT station (a long journey from downtown on the Circle Line) offers a route to the least interesting part of the gardens; the itinerary that follows assumes the classic approach up Tanglin and Napier roads to the Tanglin gate at the start of Cluny Road. Note that if you’re feeling peckish while visiting, there are plenty of restaurants and cafés in the gardens itself or nearby at Tanglin village.
Once through the Tanglin gate, you can take a sharp right up the slope to the Botany Centre just ahead, a large building containing an information desk with free garden maps. Alternatively, continue straight down the path from the gate, lined with frangipanis, casuarinas and the odd majestic banyan tree, for five minutes to reach the tranquil main lake, nearly as old as the gardens themselves. At the lake’s far end, paths run through a small tract of surviving rainforest to the ginger garden, packed with flowering gingers as exotic and gaudy as anything you could hope to see in the tropics.
A feast of blooms of almost every hue are on show at the National Orchid Garden. Most orchids anchor themselves on trees in the wild, so it’s initially odd to see them thriving here at ground level in specially adapted beds. Th ere’s an entire section of orchids named after dignitaries and celebrities who have visited; Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher turns out to be a severe pink with two of its petals looking like twisted ribbons, while Vandaenopsis Nelson Mandela is a reassuring warm yellowy-brown. Looking slightly out of place is a colonial-era house, Burkill Hall, with more than a hint of mock Tudor about it; the gardens’ director once lived here. Be sure to visit the superb cool house, mimicking conditions at the tops of equatorial mountains; through its mists you’ll spot some stunning slipper orchids, their petals forming a pouch below, as well as insectivorous pitcher plants. Finally, the gift shop stocks an incredible range of orchid paraphernalia, including blossoms encased in glass paperweights or plated with 24-carat gold (or even silvery rhodium for extra snob value).