Summmer and Spring in Asia
Flame Trees and Fire Ants

by Clement Kent

March 1995

The frangipani blossoms around the hotel pool were the first hints of horticulture I had when I reached Singapore. Even after they are knocked off the trees by the heavy tropical rains, the waxy blooms retain their sweet fragrance and beautiful colors for several days. It is thus possible, if one is as shameless a bouquet gatherer as am I, to seriously annoy hotel maids by making an ever growing collection of flowers in the hotel room.

Although I was too busy with business during the week to do much botanizing, I enjoyed the views from taxi, hotel, and office buildings of Singapore's bountiful greenery. Although it is a very urban city, many of the main streets have a central median strip planted with large shade trees, flowering hibiscus bushes, and many other ornamentals I couldn't identify. The margin between the sidewalk and the street is often well planted with a screen of Heliconia plants, relatives of the bird of paradise plant, whose 2-3 foot leaves on stalks of similar length mask the heavy traffic from pedestrians, while enormous and exotic flower clusters of unique form dangle down. The amaryllis-like leaves of the "spider lily", a Hymenocallis species, are grown everywhere as a lower ground cover. The white, slightly fragrant clustered flowers are similar to a very large daffodil in form, except that the trumpet is shortened and widened, and 6 stamens project out like spidery legs from the corolla. The "petals" are also long and spidery, giving the large flowers a delicacy and interest of form that all but the species daffodils have lost. A very similar species, Ismene, is available in Canada as bulbs in the spring, under the name "Peruvian daffodil".

The sidewalk and median plantings are usually brightened by various foliage plants such as croton and dieffenbachia, whose red, dark green, and white or yellow variegated leaves are often more colorful than the flowers nearby. In fact, certain combinations of foliage plants are used so often as to constitute a recognizable landscaping cliche, like our own park plantings of coleus-ageratum-zinnia; but to the casual visitor from northern climes it is a very pretty cliche indeed.

Bougainvillea is used everywhere. The edges of bridges and pedestrian overpasses have planters filled with bougainvillea vines which trail down and provide a bright decoration in colors ranging between pinks, scarlets, mauves, and magentas. At the National Technical University of Singapore where I was teaching, the buildings were arranged in stepped pyramids with large planter boxes at the edge of each level, filled with bougainvillea and other shrubs. Tropical birds of many colors flew in the palm and flame trees that shaded the parking area, some of them raucous as crows, some of them beautiful singers.

A different chorus greeted me one evening at the Singapore Botanical Gardens. Only about 10 minutes walk from the posh shopping district and expensive hotels of Orchard Road, the gardens have been part of Singapore since the last century, when the British transferred precious rubbber tree seedlings (grown at Kew from seeds smuggled out of Brazil) to Singapore to be built up into commercial quantities. They were then planted in the Malaysian rubber plantations that made so many British fortunes and destroyed so many Brazilian ones...

I arrived at the gardens just before sunset. I had gone to Orchard road subway station immediately after work but was diverted by the need to buy an umbrella before I could wander the gardens. Of course, I walked the wrong way on Orchard road, towards the gardens, where only the most expensive shops were. None of them would think of carrying an umbrella (shudder!) in stock. When I asked where one could buy an umbrella, they all said "oh, anywhere - but not here!" So I lost an hour and finally arrived at the ornamental wrought iron gates of the gardens damp, hot, and irritated. The sun was just setting and the last joggers were just leaving the trails. I thought I had missed my chance andd would have to return to the hotel. I was pleassantly surprised to find that the gardens are open everday from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. As Singapore is an extremely safe, clean, and crime-free nation I had no concerns (other than that missing umbrella!) about walking in the park in the dark. So I set out to see what I could in the gathering gloom.

The twilight chorus in the Singapore Botanical Gardens is a stunning reminder that you are on the equator, on an island that would be dense tropical rainforest were it not for humanity. Earsplitting cicada whines combine with absolutely remarkable frog calls, from basso profundo to soprano. The humidity of the day condenses into a mist that obscures the distances, while within the section reserved for jungle you walk on meandering paths between giant ferns and half-glimpsed towering tree trunks. Only a block away one of the world's busiest commercial city-states goes about its business while you can imagine yourself lost in the primeval jungle.

The next day my work finished early - it was a national holiday, Hari Raya, the celebration of the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. On the subway the Singaporeans of Malay origin were as gorgeous as the flowers, dressed in silk festival costumes usually of a single deep color, such as rich greens, blues, crimsons, piped and braided with gold. Surrounded by this festive display, I made my way to the gardens in early afternoon.

In daylight things were very different. Much of Singapore's wealth is recent, accumulated in the last 20 years, and everywhere the city is under construction. The gardens are no exception. Many trees appeared to have been planted within the last few years; it appears that had I visited in the 80's I might have seen a rather dull grassy park with a few special attractions. Now the gardens are being replanted and redeveloped with a vengeance. Two thirds of the area of the gardens is bulldozer-scraped red clay, which within a year or two will house a new visitor centre, ecology area with lake and tropical forest, and many other attractions. At present, there is a rather small orchid enclosure, but a much larger and rather magnificent orchid garden is being built on a hillside and will be open later this year.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that there is nothing to see in the Botanical Gardens. The national flower, orchid Vanda "Miss Joaquim" grows in large stands. The rainforest is fascinating, and the collection of frangipani trees both fragrant and colorful. But, I believe the botanical traveller will enjoy it more in a few years.

On Saturday I had great ambitions - to see both the national nature preserve of Bukit Timah, with its many hectares of untouched rainforest, and to see the Mandai Orchid Gardens near the zoo. Although nowhere on the island is more than about 1/2 hour's drive, I decided to travel as many Singaporeans do and took the subway to Ang Mo Kio station and then the #138 bus to the zoo.

The bus was full of families with children taking a holiday day at the zoo. Along the way we passed large "secondary forest" areas around the island's reservoir park. This is a large region which is managed as a nature preserve and park. Because it was logged and farmed until a few decades ago, it is at present a nearly impenetrable jungle of young trees, vines, and luxuriant vegetation. The shade trees next to the road carried 6 foot clumps of staghorn and palmate fems, while great tangles of a tropical morning glory covered shrubs at the edge of the park. On the other side of the road are some of the few actual houses in Singapore. Most Singaporeans live in flats in giant apartment developments built by the government. Here at the outer edges of the island there was some actual low-rise development, including a brilliantly painted Hindu temple in the midst of a grove of citrus trees.

One of the first things I saw on alighting from the bus at the zoo was the flower shop. Where a Canadian shop might sell geraniums, pansies and petunias, this shop sold zoo poo and orchids in 6 inch pots. For $10-$20, the zoo visitor could carry away healthy plant with several 18" spikes of blooms. These will grow on a balcony with just rain water and the occasional dose of fertilizer. I longed to buy one, but Canada Customs wouldn't let me bring it back .... sigh ... so instead I walked down the road to the Mandai Orchid Gardens.

Mandai is a private nursery with an alarmingly large display of orchids, growing both in pots and in a sawdust-charcoal mix right in the ground, in long rows held up by stakes, almost as we would grow beans. I'm not an expert on orchids, so all I could do was wander about gawking and marvelling at the colors and forms on display, while using up roll after roll of film. On one trip to the sales counter to buy more film, I asked the girl there to store my little backpack, as it was too hot to carry about. She put it away under the counter and I forgot about it. An hour or two later I came back for it, slung it across my shoulders and headed for a shaded garden area for a noon-time rest.

Suddenly I was on fire! Tiny fire ants, almost invisible, had crawled onto the pack while it rested under the shelf. Now they were stinging me with mad abandon ... I flung off the pack and spent the next 10 minutes finding and removing infinitesimal monsters from my clothes and body.

Some of the most interesting displays at Mandai are the orchids which grow on trees. This is the natural habitat of most orchid species (not, it may surprise some to learn, pots) and next to a potting shed an elderly fig tree's near-horizontal trunk was clothed in a luxuriant growth of orchids, sprouting out of minute crevices in the bark. The contrast between the orchids and the round globes of the unripe figs was quite striking.

Below the orchid display area was an ornamental garden simply for pleasure. As the noonday heat and humidity soon proved too much for my Canadian mid-winter pallor, I found a shady spot under some trees and looked at the fabulous plants on display. As I watched the odd stem of a protea-like pink flower sway in the breeze, a brilliantly red and blue colored sunbird or honeycreeper flew down to drink its nectar. It was a member of a large group of old-world tropical birds that fill the same niche as western hemispere hummingbirds, except that they are usually much larger than a hummer and don't hover. The colors of many of these birds are wonderful, and they make a fascinating addition to the flowers of a tropical garden.

As I left Mandai, I bought a large bouquet of 6 stems of orchids, freshly cut, for less than $5. These adorned my hotel rooms in Singapore and Taiwan for the rest of the trip, only to be abandoned (still fresh and colorful) due to the dire attitudes of Canada Customs.

I had planned to take a cab onwards to Bukit Timah and hike in virgin rainforest, but the heat, my near sunstroke, my lack of hiking boots, and the fire ants dissuaded me. For the rest of my Singapore visit I had to content myself with staring at the fiery orange blooms of the flame trees and wondering if I had been too prudent.

As I write this in Osaka's Kansai airport, I think back on my week just finished in Taiwan and the week before it in Singapore. Singapore was undergoing one of its two seasons - the rainy season. Taiwan was just finishing winter (the time of 10-20 C temperatures) and starting spring. Although gerberas and bougainvillea grow winter-round in Hsin Chu (one hour from Taipei), the roses were beginning to bloom, some trees were leafing out, and the spring flowers were starting. Plum blossoms, a traditional Chinese harbinger of spring, were visible throughout the countryside. The rice paddies were flooded and farmers had just begun the back-breaking job of transplanting the young rice seedlings into the paddies. A beautiful ornamental tree with blossoms somewhat like a yellow-cream colored magnolia was just beginning to unfurl its blooms in the last days of my visit, and an orange-flowered vine similar to trumpet vine was covering the sides of some houses.

As I wait to board my Air Canada flight to Toronto, I wonder what I will find on my return: 6 inches of snow, or bare ground and snowdrops? By the time you, O gentle reader, peruse this I hope the crocuses will be out.

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t