Giant fruit, rare plants, and art: Singapore Botanic Gardens extension now open

Atbara, a mansion at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, is now home to the Forest Discovery Centre, which highlights the importance of Singapore’s diverse forest areas, from coastal mangroves to tropical rainforests.
PHOTO: National Parks Board

Beautiful historic houses, undulating lawns, hilly trails, rare trees, an art gallery, and a forest-themed playground - the much-anticipated extension to Singapore's Botanic Gardens (SBG) has something for almost everyone.

Opened this month, the eight-hectare Gallop Extension, across Tyersall Avenue from the main gardens, is a significant addition to the Unesco World Heritage-listed site. And while it feels a little detached - something SBG aims to fix with the addition of a canopy link bridge next year - it reflects many of the elements that make the original Botanic Gardens, established in 1859, such a draw for overseas visitors and residents alike.

Like the main gardens, the space has been landscaped with rare and unique regional plants to create a range of environments, from shady trails to rolling parkland. And, like the original gardens, Singapore's National Parks has designed the Gallop Extension with the intention of preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the area.

Formerly a pepper and gambier plantation, the site became an estate for a series of rich landowners at the end of the 19th century - the name Gallop refers to the fact it was a popular spot for riding horses - and much of that history has been preserved.

The OCBC Arboretum at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo: National Parks Board, Singapore

That is most evident in the imposing black and white mansions that dominate the central area. Approached along a gravel path through the arboretum or up the sweeping driveway, these grand residences were the work of Regent Alfred John Bidwell, designer of Raffles Hotel.

Dating to 1898, the larger of the two houses, known as the Atbara (named after a British military victory in Sudan), is the oldest surviving black-and-white-style bungalow in Singapore. With its L-shaped layout and eclectic mix of influences, spanning everything from Moorish arches to a Medieval-style porch, it's also unique architecturally.

It's now home to the Forest Discovery Centre, which highlights the importance of Singapore's diverse forest areas, from coastal mangroves to tropical rainforests. Children-focused, there is lots to interact with, from a monocular set up to spot the garden's birds to the chance to take a camera trap selfie.

A short stroll across the lawn past Contract, a sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley, is the Inverturret, another striking example of colonial architecture. Built in 1906, and the French ambassador's residence until 1999, it's now the Botanical Art Gallery, an exhibition space dedicated to the role art has played in the scientific study of plants.

Split over two stories, the gallery's 100 artworks are drawn from SBG's extensive archive of more than 2,000 botanical books and paintings, which date back to the 17th century. As well as the four main galleries, which feature rotating exhibitions, there's a workshop where visitors can have a go at replicating the shapes, forms and textures of fruits, leaves and seeds.

Visitors view works of art related to the study of plants at the Botanical Art Gallery. Photo: National Parks Board, Singapore

Some of the paintings are exquisite in their detail, but they face stiff competition for one's attention from the house itself. Whether striding up the imposing wooden staircase or admiring the view from the breezy verandas, it's possible to imagine what it must have been like to live in such a grand home.

Of course, there's also plenty to do outside. Opened in October 2019, the main Tyersall Avenue entrance leads into the first phase of the extension, which includes the Mingxin Foundation Rambler's Ridge, a shady trail that winds up to the highest point of the gardens.

The low road, through the OCBC Arboretum, is planted with around 200 species of rare dipterocarps - the backbone of the region's tropical rainforests, these trees can grow up to 80 metres (260 feet) tall. Created as a living laboratory, the idea here is to monitor how changing moisture, soil types and temperatures affect the trees' growth. That knowledge can be used in reforestation efforts across Southeast Asia.

The Mingxin Foundation Rambler’s Ridge at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo: National Parks Board, Singapore

Tucked away behind the Atbara, the Como Adventure Grove, a sprawling children's playground, is another feature that opened this month. The forest focus is maintained with apparatus designed in the shape of jackfruit, saga tree seed pods and weeping fig.

Beyond the playground is Gallop Valley, an area of secluded winding gravel paths that lead past fresh plantings and towering mature trees. While the valley feels a little young at the moment, it's a good example of how a sensitive approach to the extension's landscaping has managed to enhance and complement the existing environment.

The abundance of older trees in the Gallop Extension means there's already a thriving bird population - hawk-eagles, hornbills, black-naped orioles, sunbirds and long-tailed parakeets have all been spotted flitting around the grounds - while the presence of the two mansions help imbue the site with a timeless quality.

It's a welcome addition to the Botanic Gardens and further evidence of Singapore's ambition to grow into a "city in nature".

A boy plays on a giant jackfruit at the Como Adventure Grove in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo: National Parks Board, Singapore

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.