Despite its perfectly pruned trees and bursts of purple bougainvillea, Singapore is still a city, and it can get to you. When the high-rises and the throngs of pedestrians walking at alarming speeds that only urbanites attain are all too much, there’s no better place to unwind than the Botanic Gardens.
Stepping into the 182-acre gardens is like entering the heart of a forest. The air is fresh and rings with the sound of water splashing from the myriad tiny fountains where children pause to dip their fingers.
Founded in 1859 by the Singapore Agri-Horticultural Society, the Botanic Gardens on Cluny Road constitute the city’s second such attempt, which turned out to be very successful. The gardens draw roughly four million visitors each year. Open daily from 5 a.m. to midnight, they are frequented by runners, tourists, elderly ladies attending yoga sessions, or those looking to escape the bustle of the city.
Since 2002, Singapore has been vying for the Botanic Gardens to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its case is strong: not only do the gardens house dozens of heritage trees, some of which are over 150 years old, it also hosts endangered species of rainforest trees. The gardens have been instrumental in developing Singapore’s identity as a “Garden City” over the past fifty years. Singapore’s streets are full of plants that were grown here first and then transplanted.
The National Orchid Garden, located within the Botanic Gardens, houses orchids named after world celebrities. Prince William and Kate Middleton have recently joined the ranks of Elton John, Nelson Mandela, and Jackie Chan.
The park has evolved from its origins as a 19th-century colonial “pleasure garden” into a centre of learning, research, and conservation. The Library of Botany and Horticulture here is one of Southeast Asia’s oldest reference libraries. It contains numerous journals, rare books, research papers, and articles that are a treasure trove of information for researchers.
As I watch a bunch of excited picnickers settle on a lawn speckled with colourful blankets and inflatable balls, it is obvious that for Singaporeans it is moot that the gardens be declared a World Heritage site. For them, it is already much more. It provides an opportunity to connect with nature and, for just a few hours, to find an island of tranquillity in a sea of noise. I smile to myself as a jazz performer takes the stage and croons a catchier version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Summertime”. Today, it’s an opportunity to listen to some good live music and watch the city’s citizens unwind.
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Urban Oasis”.
Aysha Tanya is a freelance food writer and photographer who divides her time between Kerala and Bangalore. She also runs a food blog with her mother, in which they chronicle the joys (and struggles!) of cooking world classics in a small-town kitchen.