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Singapore - a city in a garden

Gardens by the Bay is vast, and the attention to detail is a thrill. Featured are two enormous biodomes and groves of 'Supertrees'. Photo - Robin Powell

We are thrilled by what a trip to Singapore has to offer.

Singapore is a small tropical island, 42 km at its longest point and 23 km at its widest, with 5 million people, so space is at a premium.

Nonetheless the government acknowledges that life is better with parks and gardens. It has committed to conserving an eighth of the landmass as natural rainforest and wetland, and turning what it can of the rest into public gardens. ‘A City in a Garden’ is the government catchcry.


The archway of 'Golden Slipper' orchids in the National Orchid Garden at Singapore's Botanic Gardens. Photo - Robin Powell 


Gardens by the Bay is the headline project, a 121-hectare, three-stage horticultural extravaganza on reclaimed land at the mouth of the Singapore River. It’s big, visionary and genuinely exciting. The South garden is the first stage to open and it features three highlights – two massive biodomes and a grove of ‘supertrees’. The biodomes are the largest in the southern hemisphere, and are marvels of engineering as well as horticulture. 


The Gardens by the Bay 'Supertrees' tower over the natural trees and are clothed in walls of plants. They are lit at night, powered by solar panels hidden in the 'treetops'. Photo - Robin Powell

The Supertrees are 8-15-storey high, elegantly-waisted steel constructions that support garden panels densely planted with climbers, orchids, ferns, orchids, bromeliads and - Oh, did I mention the orchids already?


Singapore orchids. Photo - Robin Powell


Land of the tropical orchid

Orchids are everywhere in Singapore, from the walkways at Changi airport arrivals hall, to the vases on the tables at high tea at Raffles, and of course, at the National Orchid Garden in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens has been associated with orchids since its inception in the middle of the 19th century. Its breeding program began in 1928 and continues to launch new varieties into commercial production, naming some of them for celebrities. ‘Princess Diana’ is a lovely white dendrobium; ‘Michael Jeffery’, named for our former Governor-General, is a sensible lilac and white; and ‘Elton John’ is appropriately dazzling – a white moth orchid randomly splotched with vibrant yellow and purple.


Orchids dazzle all through Singapore - in vases at Raffles high tea tables, and in gardens throughout the island. Photo - Robin Powell


Singapore’s national flower is a vanda orchid called ‘Miss Joaquim’ after the gardener who bred it in the late 19th century, Agnes Joaquim. ‘Miss Joaquim’ is easy to grow and flowers profusely all year so it was soon seen in pots and gardens all over the island. It wasn’t until 1981 though, nearly a century after Agnes’ death, that it became the national flower. Having a hybrid rather than an indigenous plant as a national emblem is a bit unusual, but given Singapore’s role in the history of orchid development it makes sense.


 The National Orchid Garden tells the story of the island's connection with orchids, and demonstrates their beauty in some amazing plantings. Photo - Robin Powell


Heads in the clouds

We were especially bowled over by the orchids in the Cloud Forest biodome in the Gardens by the Bay. This glasshouse is kept at a cool and moist 22-25 C to replicate the climate of tropical montane regions. A huge waterfall thunders from the top of the ‘mountain’, its spray keeping long arching sprays of brilliant white moth orchids perfectly happy. As we walked up the path to the top of the mountain we saw gardeners on cherry pickers attaching more orchids to the trunks of trees and ferns. A woman with a clipboard stood by, making sure the workers didn’t attach the orchids in orderly lines, but in naturalistic groupings. The orchids are initially imported, mostly from Taiwan, and then are reflowered, onsite, in the Gardens nursery.


A waterfall thunders from the top of the 'mountain' in the Cloud Forest biodome, misting orchids blooming down its face. Photo - Robin Powell


Other workers were abseiling down the face of the mountain, weeding and trimming the 35m expanse of dense greenwall planting. It’s an astonishing display of engineering and horticultural creativity and skill.

The adjoining glasshouse celebrates the plants of dry climates, like those of the Mediterranean and parts of Australia. Kangaroo paw and Queensland bottle trees give way to a grove of thousand-year old olives, then to roses and flowers galore. Both glasshouses are cooled by steam power, using a steam turbine fed by the prunings from the gardens themselves.



A flowering meadow in the Flower Dome biodome, which makes a dry-climate home for plants from warm temperate regions. Photo - Robin Powell


Icy treats

Cooling is of course a challenge in tropical Singapore, where the temperature sits at around 30 degrees every day of the year. And that makes an icy treat just the thing, at just about any time of day. There are ice cream shops and gelataria, but more fun is to cool down the way the locals do. There are two top choices, both delicious. The first is an iced coffee. Singaporeans are mad for coffee, and they like it good and strong. They roast beans grown in Indonesia and Malaysia and brew up a rich blend to which a splash of condensed milk is added. This is called kopi, and it is really good – not too sweet, not too milky, not too bitter. You can have it black with sugar, or just black, or with evaporated instead of condensed milk (don’t even think about fresh milk – there are no cows to provide it in space-challenged Singapore) but given the weather, the best choice is to try it iced – as kopi peng in a long glass of ice.


The South-East Asian delight 'chendol'. Photo - Robin Powell

The other must-try chill-down is chendol, a sweet treat throughout south-east Asia. The dish starts with shaved ice piled into a dish or glass. This is flavoured with palm syrup and coconut milk, with textural and flavour interest added through sweet red beans, pandan-leaf flavoured noodle bits, and cubes of jelly. You can find chendol and its variants all over town, whether you find yourself in Chinatown, at the Jurong Bird Park, or at Gluttons Bay hawker centre eating out in the balmy night and looking towards the beautifully lit features of Gardens by the Bay.


Gardens by the Bay is a great highlight, and if you can join us next year, you’ll find that Singapore has lots more to offer.


The pitcher plant lake at the top of the Cloud Forest biodome. Photo - Robin Powell 

We tour the sights, sounds, tastes and gardens of Singapore every year - why not visit our Singapore - a side you rarely see.


Text: Robin Powell

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Author: Robin Powell