Penang Botanic Gardens

by Eric Lim

photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

The definition of the idiom “old habits die hard” is that it is hard to stop doing things that one has been doing for a long time. This is actually what happens every time I visit Penang, The Pearl of The Orient. I will go to the Penang Botanic Gardens, “come rain, come shine” and always between 7.00 and 9.00 in the morning, the best time of the day to achieve that daily 10,000 step goal. I was in Penang last month with friends and, of course, we visited Penang Botanic Gardens.

An information board located outside the garden’s office building mentions that the Penang Botanic Gardens were established in 1884. It may come as a surprise even to Penangites that the Botanical Gardens on the island goes back earlier than that, in fact, to the 18th century when the island was under the control of British East India Company. Francis Light declared British rule in the island and named it Prince of Wales Island in the year 1786; eight years later, in 1794, saw the setting up of the first Botanical Gardens in Penang. A Kew Gardens-trained botanist by the name of Christopher Smith was given the task to establish the gardens. The first Botanical Gardens was essentially a spice garden as Smith brought in specimens of nutmeg, clove, canary nuts and sugar palm from the Moluccas Island (Maluku Islands) in Indonesia, which were known as the Spice Islands. These grew very well. However, Smith did not enjoy the fruits of his labour as he died unexpectedly in 1805. The Company decided to close the Gardens and it sold off the Gardens’ contents.

Alstonia sp. (Pulai), photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

After a lapse of 17 years, the second Botanical Gardens took shape in 1822, due to the urging of Sir Stamford Raffles who had a keen interest in Botany and was at that time the superintendent of the Singapore Botanical Gardens. Sir Stamford Raffles is best known for the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 and this year, the Republic is celebrating its 200th Anniversary. George Porter who was working as the headmaster at Penang Free School was recommended to manage the Gardens. He managed the Gardens for 12 years and once again, it suffered the same fate as the earlier Gardens, as in 1834 the then Governor Kenneth Murchison decided to sell it off for a sum of 1,250 rupees. With the closure, Porter returned to his job as headmaster.

These two earlier Gardens are believed to have been sited at Air Hitam valley and at Sungai Keluang in Bayan Lepas; however the actual locations cannot be identified. It would take another 54 years, i.e in the year 1884, as stated in the information board, for the creation of the third Botanical Gardens. This time, the running of the Gardens came under the Strait Settlements Department of Gardens and Forests with its parent establishment, the Singapore Botanic Gardens. One of its responsibilities was to conduct research on tropical plants for their economic use. One of the success stories was the promotion of rubber trees (Hevea Brasiliensis) to be planted in the Malay Peninsular by British botanist Henry Nicholas Ridley who was at that time working for Singapore Botanical Gardens.

Schima Wallichii, photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

The third Botanical Gardens were established at the site of an abandoned granite quarry that lies deep in a tropical valley, at the foot of a big waterfall. Additionally, a river meanders through the valley. Due to a cascading waterfall, the Penang Botanic Gardens were also popularly known as the Waterfall Gardens. Charles Curtis, an avid botanist and a devoted plant collector, was appointed as the first superintendent of the Botanical Gardens. Under his supervision, the Gardens transformed from an old quarry into a magnificent garden – due his great vision in landscaping and his ability to blend into a tropical rain-forest settings. Curtis also focused his research in native plants as well as introduced non-native exotic plants to Penang and Singapore. He continued his good work for the Garden until December of 1903 when he formally retired due to health issues.

All was well until 1910 when there was a proposal to turn the valley into a massive reservoir that would serve the needs of the majority of households on the island. Fortunately, the plan was abandoned and instead, a small reservoir was constructed at the foot of the waterfall. This reservoir is still in operations today and it is supplying water to about 10-15% of the population of the state. During the Second War World, the Japanese army took over and immediately went into excavating tunnels, which were turned into assembling and storage facilities. After the war, Penang Botanic Gardens was separated from its parent establishment in Singapore. The year 1956 saw the appointment of the first local, Cheang Kok Choy as the curator of the Penang Botanic Gardens. Earlier on, Cheang was trained by the British and he continued on the good works of his predecessors until he retired in 1976.

Canon Ball Tree, photo source: Penang Botanic Gardens website

Today, the operations of the Penang Botanic Gardens come under Jabatan Taman Botani Pulau Pinang (Penang Botanical Gardens Department), an arm of the Penang State Government. It is divided into 11 sections namely Aquatic Garden, Economic Garden, Quarry Garden, Secret Garden, Herbs Garden, Aroid Trail, Lily Pond, Curtis Trail, Formal Garden, Sunken Garden and Japanese Garden. There are also four plant houses – Fern House, Cactus & Succulent House, Orchidarium and Bromeliad House. And among the flora that visitors can see includes Cannon Ball tree (botanical name: couroupita guianensis / origin: Guyana), Argus Pheasant tree or commonly called Sengkuang tree (dracontomelon dao / Indo-Malesia), Pinang palm (areca catechu, from which Penang got its name), black lily (tacca integrifolia), Ipoh tree (antiaris toxicaria, from which Ipoh got its name), angsana (Burmese rosewood), Rain tree (samanea saman / South Africa) and many more. The fauna includes the dusky leaf monkeys, long tailed macaques, squirrels and many insects and butterflies.

Apart from the department’s involvement in conservation efforts, research developments and educating the public on nature and gardening, the department is also targeting on the tourism aspects by adding new attractions and organizing events to make the park a popular destination for locals and tourists. Dataran Teratai is one of the attractions; it opened in June 2011 and it features the giant water lilies of the Amazon River basin. It is the venue for the annual International Flora Festival (in May) and Penang Orchid Show (this year, it is scheduled for 11 – 18 August). It is the starting point for the many Penang Hill trails and a non-governmental organization called The Friends of the Penang Botanical Gardens organizes monthly visits to the waterfall which is now privately owned. On a daily basis, visitors can join in the practice of Tai Chi, Qigong and aerobics or go jogging and strolling around the park.

With so much to do and with activities scheduled throughout the year, it is my hope that the next time you visit Penang you will visit the Penang Botanic Gardens/Waterfall Gardens, just like I do. It is open every day, from 5.00 am to 8.00 pm and is just about 8 km from Georgetown city. If you are driving, there are plenty of parking bays. Penang Botanic Gardens, here I come, again.

The large rain tree (Pukul lima) at the Gardens’ entrance (at the centre of the photo) was planted in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It stood tall for 130 years. Unfortunately, it had to be chopped down in 2017 as the dying tree posed a danger. This photo was taken circa 1910. Photo source: Cheah Jin Seng (2012) Penang: 500 Early Postcards, Singapore: EDM.
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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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