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Meet: Anton van der Schans, assistant director, Gardens by the Bay

Graham catches up with Anton van der Schans in the Australian garden in the Flower Dome. Photo - Linda Ross

Meet walking horticultural encyclopedia, Australian horticulturist and friend, Antone van deer Schans. Imagine a giant steel tree, 50m tall, clad in living plants. 

Now imagine a forest of them, add a Flower Dome housing more than a quarter of a million plants; and a Cloud Forest glasshouse with plants dripping from a man-made mountain with 35m-drop waterfall! Now you’re starting to get a picture of Singapore’s spectacular Gardens by the Bay. Graham spoke with Australian horticulturist Anton van der Schans, the man responsible for much of the horticultural work and for sourcing the huge, mature trees and rare plants.

Is this the most exciting job in horticulture today?

Yes, it’s is very exciting and at times frightening. You don’t get much sleep at night; it’s like raising thousands of babies.


Many of these trees are adults, not babies! Where were they sourced?

We’ve been to every continent except Antarctica to obtain mature trees for the Flower Dome. The baobobs, for instance, are from Africa. We thought the hard part would be finding them, but that proved the easiest. Installing them in the Flower Dome was the real challenge. The largest, 32-tonnes, took all night to get into place.


Alcantarea. Photo - Linda Ross


How did this project come about?

Dr. Tan Wee Kiat put the idea to the Singapore Government a decade ago. Initially the Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, thought a more valuable development would be a better choice, though ultimately Gardens by the Bay has become part of his ‘City in a Garden’ vision. Once the land was reclaimed, it had to be drained, canals installed, roads constructed and electricity installed. Half of the budget was spent on infrastructure, leaving roughly $500 million for the domes, trees and plant procurement.


Tell us a bit about these biodome glasshouses.

The glasshouses are visible when you arrive at Singapore Airport and they are beautifully designed structures, but importantly they are also functional and enable the successful growing of endangered plants from around the world. The Flower Dome is set at a constant, Mediterranean-like 25C.


Graham in the Cloud Forest glasshouse. Photo - Linda Ross

And the Cloud Forest dome is something else again.

Yes, the mountain was built first then the elevated pathways were put in. Plants were planted from scaffolding, then the glasshouse was built over the top. Once the glasshouse was built the plants had to withstand low temperatures and high-altitude moisture, just as you would find in a mountainous, cool-temperate rainforest.


And finally what’s the story behind those dramatic Super Trees?

We’re a new garden and even though here in the tropics we have a very fast growth rate we can’t grow 20-50m trees quickly. We needed something tall (and fast!) to match the vertical scale of our neighbour, the 200m tall Marina Bay Sands Hotel complex. So we built the ‘trees’: steel and concrete frames planted with 160,000 climbers and tropical plants that are suitable for Singapore conditions. The ‘trees’ are also functional. The spectacular light show that happens every night is totally powered by photovoltaic cells that have been installed in the tops of the trees. One of the ‘trees’ also serves as an exhaust flue for the hot air from the energy centre.


Singapore's 'Supertrees'. Photo - Linda Ross


Gardens by the Bay is open every day and admission to the outdoor gardens is free. Tickets to the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest can be bought at the Gardens, or online at

Text: Graham Ross

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Author: Graham Ross