Singapore, Asia

The ultimate garden city

Words: Nigel Colborn

Pictures: Singapore National Parks Board and Nigel Colborn

Most towns have parks and gardens but Singapore takes urban greening into entirely new territory.  Rather than being merely a verdant city, this is a 72,000 hectare garden that houses an amazing diversity of plants as well as five million people.

Tucked into the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, a whisker north of the equator, the island basks in heat and humidity all year.  Growth is dramatically fast and although the natural rainforest is long gone, Singapore’s flora is still surprisingly rich making it the perfect mid-flight stop-over for anyone who loves gardens.  Urban streets are lined with exotic trees and natural green spaces are thoughtfully preserved.  Away from the city centre, roads are lined with six metre strips of native trees and vegetation, serving as wildlife corridors as well as shading the tarmac.

The jewel in the city’s horticultural crown is the Singapore Botanic Garden, founded during British rule in 1859.  As well as a huge collection of tropical plants, the garden has a history of research, chiefly into orchids and rubber.  Eric Holttum, director from 1925 until 1949, pioneered orchid breeding and his work can be enjoyed today in the International Orchid Garden, deep in the heart of the main garden.

Short-term tourists often make the mistake of limiting their visits to the Botanic Garden.  But Singapore’s satellite parks are also fascinating, partly because the locals love to attempt the impossible.

Growing silver-leaved plants, for example, is far more difficult in the tropics, than in a dry, Mediterranean climate.  But at the 43 hectare Hortpark, they’ve tried that, and it works.  Hortpark also boasts a bamboo labyrinth, butterfly garden and is a delightful place to dine.

Hortpark, being a little out of town, is well placed for walking or cycling the island’s Southern Ridges.  Here, you’ll find forest canopy walks, foot and cycle ways and the distinctive Henderson Waves – Singapore’s highest pedestrian bridge.

If you want to find out more everything green, in this city, is administered by the National Parks Board.

Not to be missed

On my last visit to Singapore the 54 hectare Gardens by the Bay were being constructed on reclaimed, waterside land.  These are now open and, as with so much in Singapore, combine horticultural excellence with hard commercialism.  There’s a casino, a swanky hotel, distinctive structures – including energy-storing “supertrees” – and spectacular planting.

Modernist glass-houses accommodate cloud forest, temperate plants and more.  And outside, you can enjoy such surprising features as the fall tints of a northern autumn, expressed with tropical plants that thrive in the hothouse climate.

Other gardens

Peninsular Malaysia has interesting gardens, wonderful wildlife and great culture.  It’s also worth visiting the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo for flora and fauna including wild orang utans, proboscis monkeys, pitcher plants and giant flowers of rafflesia.


If you’re only on a short stopover, and have flown from somewhere cold, the sweltering temperatures, with high humidity, can be trying.

How to get there

Singapore is one of the world’s busiest crossroads.  Many east-west flights stop there and it’s a popular cruise terminal, too. From Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian towns, there are good bus services and scruffy, leisurely trains.