The legend of the Upside Down Tree and other stories

Inside the Flower Dome of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay grow magnificent trees with some of the oddest names in the world. How did they get their unique monikers?

Just a pebble’s throw from the sleek steel and concrete of Singapore’s Marina Bay, the island’s energetic financial hub, wide stretches of green lure the occupants of concrete canyons to escape to a different world – to no less than 101 hectares of 21st century botanical art. Gardens by the Bay is a national icon and a remarkable synthesis of the organic with the inorganic.

Supertree Grove, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Supertree Grove, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Its towering tree-like vertical gardens, or Supertrees, and swooping aerial walkway are stuff of fantasy, but it is within its cooled conservatories, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, where you truly feel like you have stepped into another dimension. Each of them is home to the planet’s most fascinating flora, many of which have names that read like they have come out of a Dr. Seuss book. How did they get these strange names?

The Upside Down Tree

The largest and most striking tree in the Flower Dome, the African Baobab (Adansonia digitata), also known as the Upside Down Tree, is one of nature’s most useful trees. Its fruits and seeds are edible, while its trunk may hold as much as thousands of  litres of water to act as a reservoir during the dry season. Baobabs can weigh over several hundred tons, which is equivalent to at least 14 African elephants. Growing for up to 5000 years, its trunk can grow to a diameter of 11 metres. In Modjadjiskloof, South Africa, a baobab tree was large enough to be hollowed out to contain a pub.

African Baobab in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
African Baobab in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

According to African legend, during the time of creation, the gods planted the first baobab tree. It was majestic, but got so caught up in its own beauty, it became rather arrogant. The news soon got to the ears of the gods, so they yanked the baobab out of the ground and replanted it upside down to teach it a lesson. And that’s how the baobab came to be known as the Upside Down tree.

Agave guiengola in bloom in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Agave guiengola in bloom in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Thanks to the ingenuity of the design team behind the domes, the African Baobab and others of its ilk, including its Mediterranean and semi-dry counterparts, thrive in the cool dry atmosphere of the world’s largest columnless greenhouse. With temperatures usually set at 23 to 25 degrees centigrade, it’s comfortable not only for its inhabitants, but also for its visitors.

The Century Plant

A few steps away from the Flower Dome’s baobabs are several species of agave. Hard to miss due to their large rosettes of bluish-grey leaves, agaves are members of the Asparagaceae family, a plant family that has existed for an estimated 12,000 years.

Agave guiengola in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Agave guiengola in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Curiously, some agaves have been coined the common name of ‘Century Plant’, Agave guiengola in the Flower Dome being one of them. The common name came about because the plants take a remarkably long time to bloom. So remarkable, it was exaggerated to take a hundred years.

In reality, an agave typically takes a few decades to grow before it blooms by producing a tall inflorescence (group or cluster of flowers) that measures several metres tall, where the flowers are then pollinated and develop into fruit. After the parent plant disperses the fruit, it marks the end of its life. In short, all agaves are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once a lifetime, set seeds and die.

Agave tequiliana’s piñas, or cores, are used in the production of tequila
Agave tequiliana’s piñas, or cores, are used in the production of tequila

While many species of agaves are well armed with sharp spines at the tips and margins of their leaves, Agave guiengola have very minimal protection. This is due to the treacherous and almost inaccessible limestone cliffs on which it evolved. The specific epithet is derived from Cerro Guiengola, the mountain in Mexico where it was first discovered.

Historically, most species of agave, found in the Americas, not only sustained the early peoples of Mexico and the Apache and Comanche Indians of southwestern United States as a food source, its leaves were used as roofing, clothes and even paper

The most famous agave is undoubtedly Agave tequiliana. It is in the Mexican city of Tequila that this species flourishes in reddish, volcanic soil, perfect for the production of tequila. Renowned as ‘liquid gold’, tequila is distilled from the plant’s piña or core. The piñas are baked, mashed and their juice fermented and distilled before aging.

The Monkey Puzzle Tree

In another area of Flower Dome stands the Araucaria araucana, an evergreen that, at first glance, could stand in for a Christmas tree. Curiously, it’s also known as the Monkey Puzzle Tree. The story goes, upon seeing this tree in his friend’s garden, Charles Austin, a noted 19th century English barrister, remarked, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that!”

The prickly leaves of Araucaria araucana in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
The prickly leaves of Araucaria araucana in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The remark was not without reason as the leaves of this evergreen, being scaly, prickly, tough and thick would indeed prevent monkeys attempting to scamper up. Growing up to 50 metres in height, this conifer (not a pine), was a popular ornamental tree in Victorian England

Monkey Puzzle Trees’ in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Monkey Puzzle Trees’ in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Wood from the trunk of this tree, the national tree of Chile, is fine-grained and considered valuable, so much so that felling is now prohibited. Its starchy seeds are edible, and may be roasted, ground into flour, or made into a beverage.  Monkey Puzzles are ‘living fossils’ which have been around since the Jurassic era and have been declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Dragon Tree

Unlikely as it may seem, there is a connection between the humble asparagus and dragons. The Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) from the Asparagaceae family is unusual enough to warrant a closer look at its branches of peculiar clumps of grass-like prickly leaves, white fragrant flowers and coral red berries. This fascinating plant from the Canary Islands may not have come about without some horticultural help from Hercules.

Dracaena draco in front of Basilica of Candelaria in Tenerife, Canary Islands
Dracaena draco in front of Basilica of Candelaria in Tenerife, Canary Islands

Hercules or Heracles, the strongest man in the world, tasked to bring back three golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, had to do battle with its security staff, a hundred-headed dragon. After the Greek mythical hero successfully killed it, dragon blood trees sprang up from its blood that had stained the land. Intriguingly, the plant’s resin, exuding from cuts made to its bark, is a deep bright red. Dragon’s blood, indeed.

Found also in Madeira and Cape Verde, the dragon’s bequest from this unique subtropical may be of benefit to the world. Long been used as a varnish, especially for 17th century violins (possibly sweetening the tones of a rare Stradivarius), and also as a traditional remedy against some afflictions and promoting wound-healing, processing this ‘blood’ on a commercial scale and using it as a topical application for skin might help elevate the status of this endangered tree.

A Dragon Tree in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
A Dragon Tree in Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Within the Dome, cleverly cooled in part through the use of chilled water circulating through underground pipes, the marvels of the plant kingdom on every continent are thoughtfully presented, never ceasing to amaze even the jaded who might amble in seeking temporary relief from a tropical afternoon’s torpor. The Dome’s central expanse, its aptly-named Flower Field, is the stage for changing seasonal floral displays. All year round, it erupts in a heady, glorious explosion of colour, beauty and life, invigorating mind, body and soul.

It is at this moment that the succinct words of Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady, the wife of Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States come to mind: “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

The forest that people forgot

Isolated and hard-to-reach, cloud forests hold many secrets to the natural world. But climate change is threatening to wipe them out before scientists can get to them first.

Found on less than one per cent of the earth’s land is a type of forest shrouded in perpetual mist and fog; where ancient trees stand tall against slopes covered in rare plants, and creatures not found anywhere else in the world call home. Experts call them cloud forests, and they only occur at elevations of approximately 800 to 3,000 metres, in regions such as Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.

GBB-cloud-forest-overiewDespite their scarcity, scientists stress that the beauty and biodiversity of cloud forests cannot be underestimated. Not only do they provide a habitat for endemic wildlife, like the raccoon-like olinguito, they also act as essential life support systems, performing many important ecological functions that feed into other ecosystems and human communities that lie below their lofty belts.

Step into a cloud forest

In Singapore, ‘Cloud Forest’, one of two extraordinary columnless domes at Gardens by the Bay, simulates these fragile habitats, found as far away as the Andes. The 58-metre tall glass-clad structure offers visitors a chance to escape the tropical heat, and also aims to generate awareness of the dire state of cloud forests around the world.

GBB Cloud forestStep into the chilled enclosure of the Dome, visitors are greeted by luxuriant verdure dotted with brilliant flashes of myriad blooms including tropical rhododendrons, begonias and aristocratic anthuriums cloaking a mountainous form. From up high, refreshing streams of water and mist spring forth from 10 spouts positioned 35 metres above ground. The world’s tallest indoor waterfall not only thrills all visitors but more importantly, delights its resident epiphytes – plants that grow on others but do not feed off their hosts, preferring nutrients in the air, rainfall or matter lying on branches. This diverse plant group includes numerous species of orchids, ferns, lichens, mosses, cacti and bromeliads.

Gardens by the Bay may initially seem like a family-friendly environment, but unknown to some, it is home to a set of flesh-eating carnivores. The Nepenthes rajah, the largest carnivorous pitcher plant in the world endemic to Mount Kinabalu, grows in the Cloud Forest conservatory. Its large vase-like traps can grow up to 41 cm high and 20 cm wide – big enough to ensnare small mammals like rats and small monkeys – and contain a mixture of water and digestive fluid to digest its prey. Another member of the pitcher plant family, Nepenthes lowii, enjoys a special relationship with tree shrews by acting as the small mammal’s toilet. It’s a happy co-existence: the shrews feed off the nectar on the lid of the pitcher plant, while its droppings serve as a much-needed nitrogen source for Nepenthes lowii.

These plants scratch the surface of the biodiversity found in the world’s cloud forests. In Monteverde, Costa Rica alone, there are approximately 750 recorded tree species. In comparison, all of North America has approximately 1000 tree species.

carnivorous pitcher plant

The fight for survival

Like the polar ice caps and diminishing rainforests, cloud forests are severely threatened by climate change, and human activities such as farming, logging and poaching are encroaching the narrow bands of land they sit on. Because the plants require very specific conditions – temperature, atmospheric moisture and precipitation – to thrive, the solution is not as straightforward as moving elsewhere.

GBB-cloud-forest-logging.jpg“Cloud forests are one of the most threatened habitats because as the climate gets warmer and warmer, the plants can’t evolve in time or move up the mountain fast enough,” says Chad Davis, deputy director of conservatory operations at Gardens by the Bay.

Scientists at the Amazon Aid Foundation looked into the effects of rapid warming for Andean cloud forests. What they found was alarming. To combat temperature change, plants would have to move 3,000 feet up mountains. To successfully migrate and survive, however, the forests would need almost 4,000 years in a protected area and 18,000 years in unprotected areas.

Exacerbating the dire situation is human activity. Cloud forests across the world, from the Philippines to Kenya, are rapidly being lost to timber extraction and logging, poaching and hunting, farming, fires and population growth.

GBB-cloud-forest-forest-fire“Cloud forests are the canaries in the coal mine. They are one of the first major ecosystems that’s being damaged and they are in danger of being lost altogether. There are hundreds and hundreds of plant species we don’t even know about, animals that haven’t been discovered. Any one of these species could be a potential medicine or cure for human diseases; contain a gene that makes our food crops resistant to disease or more productive, or serve an important role that maintains balance in the ecosystem,” says Davis.

Turning the tide

All may not be lost. Some governments are taking decisive action to protect their national treasures. In December 2016, the Colombian government declared the cloud forest region of the Colombian Andes to be protected land. The 5,261-hectare Cacica Noría Regional Protected Area gives threatened mammals found in the reserve, such as the brown spider monkey, the silvery-brown tamarin, and the spectacled bear, as well as endangered tree species, such as the black oak and comino tree, a fighting chance at survival.

Closer to home, Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay is playing its part to generate awareness of the state of cloud forests through its lush displays of plant life native to tropical highlands up to 2,000-metres above sea level, and educational exhibits that illustrate the devastating effects of climate change.

Gardens by the Bay Cloud forestDavis says, “When people visit Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay, hopefully, they get excited and start thinking a little bit deeper about what they could do to protect the planet. It only takes small individual efforts. Put that on a global scale, all these individual efforts add up to become something really impactful.”

The Making of a Wonder

Since officially opening its doors in 2012, we look back at the engineering, architectural and horticultural feat that is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.

There is a reason why olive trees are not found in the tropics. The native Mediterranean species thrives in bright sunshine, but requires chillier temperatures to bear flowers and fruit. Hence, when an olive tree in equatorial Singapore, estimated to be over 1000 years old, successfully blossomed and subsequently fruited in 2015, it was a testament to the engineering and horticultural achievement that is Gardens by the Bay, the 101-hectare park located in the urban downtown of the city-state.

GBB-Gardens-overview-01.jpgFirst conceived by Dr Kiat W. Tan, botanist and former chief executive of Gardens by the Bay, the idea of constructing a world-class garden in the tropics, on reclaimed land, south of Singapore’s financial centre, seemed completely outrageous at the time.

It is hard to imagine that this horticultural destination was once sea, then sand and soggy soil. Yet, in a relatively short five years up to its official opening in 2012, an inter-disciplinary team of international and local architects, engineers, and landscape specialists successfully transformed a barren site bereft of roads, drains and electricity into a lush green space where over 1 million plants reside. Plants, trees and flowers from every continent, except for Antarctica, can be found in the Gardens.

GBB-Gardens-Construction02Then there are the larger-than-life structures: the Supertrees, towering man-made trees measuring up to 16 storeys tall; and the two cooled conservatories, Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. Beyond being superlative attractions designed to capture the imagination of the public, most structures were inventively constructed to be energy efficient in their use of water and energy.

Now more than 50 million people have visited from around world, we look back at the marvellous thinking that has gone into Gardens by the Bay.

A Singapore Icon

The first sight that greets every visitor at Gardens by the Bay is the funnel-shaped canopies of wintry, steel branches set atop towering steel and concrete trunks measuring between 25 to 50 metres in height. Mysterious and fantastic, the Supertree Grove invariably evokes comment, speculation and a sense of wonder and awe.

GBB-Gardens-supertree-grove.jpgThe character and scale of the grove was inspired by nature – and fiction. Appointed landscape architects, Grant Associates, took cues from the mighty Karri trees of southwestern Australia, a species known to grow up to 80 metres tall, as well as the magical forest in the anime film ‘Princess Mononoke’ by Japanese film studio, Studio Ghibli.

The Supertrees play vital functions in the Garden. One acts as an air exhaust (similar to the ecological functions of real trees) for the two conservatories; 11 have solar photovoltaic cells embedded into their canopies for the harvesting of solar energy. Over time, the trees have become thriving ‘vertical gardens’ in which approximately 159,000 epiphytes – orchids, ferns, bromeliads and flowering vines – grow on panels installed on their trunks.

GBB-Gardens-supertree-grove-solar-energyUnknown to most visitors is a Supertree that acts as a chimney stack. It expels non-toxic fumes from a biomass boiler where plant waste from Gardens by the Bay and other parts of Singapore is burnt and converted into fuel. The burnt waste powers a steam turbine, which subsequently produces part of the energy needed to chill the two cooled conservatories, reducing energy used from external sources.

Lit up in the evenings, the diligent trees continue multi-tasking with their very own light and sound show using colourful sequential lighting and music, illuminating the darkness and providing much visual enjoyment from an aerial perspective.

GBB-Gardens-supertree-grove-night.jpgA fusion of nature, art and technology, it’s no surprise that the Supertrees have become landmarks of Singapore instantaneously recognisable to all.

Under the domes

It was the Roman emperor, Tiberius, who pioneered the world’s first greenhouse in 30 AD. Made of stone and mica, it was heated by fires outside the structure, creating the ideal conditions to grow his crop of choice: cucumbers. The modern glass-clad greenhouse, or conservatory, does not rely on such heat sources. Instead, it traps solar energy to create a warm, temperature-controlled environment; perfect for plants that wouldn’t otherwise thrive in the cold outdoors.

GBB-Gardens-Domes-glasses.jpgIn the tropics, the converse applies. Cooled conservatories were part of Dr Tan’s original vision for Gardens by the Bay to showcase plants alien to the tropics. However, these would be no ordinary conservatories, but two supersized glass domes. In fact, Flower Dome was recognised as the largest glass greenhouse in the world by the 2015 Guinness World Records.

WilkinsonEyre, the winning architects, drew up plans for conservatories that not only pushed the boundaries of engineering, but were also aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient.

GBB-Gardens-DomesBoth domes are made up of close to 6,000 pieces of coated state-of-the-art, double-glazed glass panels that allow 66 per cent of external light and 33 per cent of external heat through. A system of steel gridshell and arches protects and stabilises the domes. An absence of columns ensure that no shadows are cast on the plants and they can enjoy as much as sunlight as possible.

Today, millions of visitors have visited the 1.2 hectare Flower Dome for its Mediterranean-zone flora, and the 0.8 hectare Cloud Forest to ascend its 35-metre high man-made mountain slope studded with plants from tropical mountains, and feel the mist from the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. With temperatures kept usually between 23 to 25 degrees centigrade, the domes also offer welcome respite from Singapore’s tropical heat.

The ability to control the temperature of the domes offers an additional and beautiful benefit. Many plants that would otherwise bloom only once a year in their natural habitat can now bloom almost all year round in tropical Singapore. The diurnal temperatures in Flower Dome, ranging between 12 to 24 degrees centigrade, match some of the plants’ spring temperatures in their natural environment, stimulating flowering more frequently.

GBB-Gardens-cherry-blossomsDisplaying temperate blooms, such as tulips, cherry blossoms, dahlias and camellias, in thematic floral displays on the equator was previously unfathomable, because these plants require a period of cold, or ‘chilling requirement’, to blossom. Thanks to the cooling technology in the conservatories as well as the expertise and dedication of the Gardens’ horticulturalists, Singaporeans are treated to much-loved displays of a palette of extraordinary flowers in Flower Dome every year.

GBB-Gardens-tulipsOn paper, Gardens by the Bay was an outrageous idea. In the flesh, it still is. Where else can visitors amble around in the world’s largest cooled conservatory, or get into misty cloud cover without leaving the island’s shores? Where else allows visitors to get up close with an unbeatable collection of plant life sourced from all corners of the globe?

Today the Gardens exist as a “people’s garden”, bringing together communities from across Singapore and people from around the world. It took a mere five years for Gardens by the Bay to rise from barren reclaimed land to become one of the most talked about engineering and horticultural marvels in the world. What’s five years? For the team who built it, a long journey faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. To an olive tree that has lived for over 1000 years, it’s a chance for a new home in the tropics. Imagine that.

The secrets

Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay’s has astounded millions of visitors since opening in 2012, but few people know the secrets behind its unique design, which incorporates innovative methods to increase its energy efficiency.

These include hidden solar panels, underfloor cooling, heat reflective glass, and perhaps most impressive of all, a secret electricity generator than runs off horticultural waste.

For visitors that come to discover these amazing structures, there really is more than meets the eye.

Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay – Featuring over 1 million plants from 19,000 species

Showcasing the best of horticulture, sustainability and architectural design, Gardens by the Bay has blossomed into a must-see destination. Explore Flower Dome to discover 9 different gardens from all the continents except the Antarctica. Marvel at the majesty of Cloud Forest and be awed as you stroll along the mist-filled Cloud Walk and Tree Top Walk. Appreciate the different expressions of floral artistry found in Floral Fantasy and dive into a 4D ride of a dragonfly’s journey. Come, be inspired by nature where wonder blooms