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Spice and Singapore: A Botanist’s Paradise

Sir Stamford Raffles once envisioned Singapore as a spice island. We trace the coloniser’s handiwork in the local parks and gardens, from Bugis to Pasir Ris, where spices grow wild.

In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles planted the first spice garden atop Government Hill. Over the course of two centuries, what began as a few hundred trees of nutmeg and clove emerged a defining feature of Singapore’s landscape. Indeed, our island has long been hailed a ‘city in nature.’ Towering elms line the highways. Lush greenery peeks out from skyscrapers. Sprawling parks cover the land – boasting every flora imaginable.

And the root of this remarkable verdant paradise? Spice.

To put things in context, we must understand Europe’s struggle to assert dominance in a global spice trade dominated by China and the Middle East. China’s first trades began as early as 2,700 BCE; by the 15th century, it controlled a vast network of routes stretching from Vietnam to India to the Arab states further West. In comparison, Europe’s first significant attempt to join the fray was in 1498, with Portugal’s Vasco De Gama. Subsequently, Europeans would remain on the side-lines of the spice trade until the 17th century, when their overwhelming success came at a very real cost: the subjugation of the lands and people of Southeast Asia.

(Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore)

In Singapore, this originated with Sir Stamford Raffles and continued with the likes of Dr Thomas Oxley and Captain William G. Scott. Each Englishman coveted different spice on different properties, but their overarching vision was the same: economic botany as the key to Singapore’s future. Urban planning maps from the 18th and 19th century, roughly the height of nutmeg mania, show the prevalence of this mindset – and its very tangible effect on Singaporean grounds. We bring you on a jaunt through the island to discover this evolution from plantation to park, plus the spices that drove it.

FORT CANNING PARK

(Image courtesy of National Parks Singapore)

Most Singaporeans know Government Hill by its more modern name: Fort Canning Park. At the entrance of its spice trail stands Gothic Gate, designed by Superintendent Engineer Captain Charles Edward Faber. The stone archway is a landmark in of itself, sombre and imposing, carved with the letters IHS in a reference to the Greek name of Jesus Christ. Behind it lies over one kilometre’s worth of herbs and spices, including but not limited to mint, allspice, cardamom, sawtooth coriander, cinnamon, chilli, betel, roselle, galangal, Thai basil, and tamarind.

Black pepper, arguably the most widely used spice in the world, is easily identified by its berry-like fruits, the treatment and ripeness of which determine whether the pepper will be white, black, red, or green. Yet another ubiquitous spice is clove, used in cocktails and cigarettes alike. It is derived from the flower buds of an evergreen tree, grown in clusters and ranging from pale yellow to green to red when they are ready for harvesting.

Landing closer to home, kaffir lime is a shrubby tree distinguished by its ‘double’ leaves – richly green and glossy on top, light and matte beneath. It is prized for its citrus fragrance, straddling the line between lemon and lime, a trademark of Thai cuisine.

PASIR RIS PARK

(Image courtesy of National Parks Singapore)

At just over 400 metres, the Pasir Ris Park’s Kitchen Garden is a more intimate rendition of Fort Canning’s spice trail. Here, herbs, spices, and plants – most of them native to Southeast Asia and integral to regional cuisine – take on new life.

Locals will surely recognize the likes of Lady’s Finger, sponge gourd, guava, and pineapple as kitchen staples. Apart from such, Kitchen Garden also boasts more anomalous varieties. The candle nut tree bears seeds that contain up to 70% oil, hence their flammable nature and apt name. The fishwort plant’s heart-shaped leaves, when touched, release sulphurous compounds that smell suspiciously of, well, seafood. But, of course, whether familiar or foreign, sweet or saline, they pale in comparison to the spices.

Lemongrass, for one, is indispensable to Sri Lankan, Indian, and Indonesian cuisine. The thick, tufted grass has a clean, lemonlike aroma that complements the heartiness of curries. It can be sold chopped, powdered, or even as an oil. Other spices include sawtooth coriander, a Central America native with serrated leaves, and mugwort, whose tangy and bitter flavour makes it a common seasoning in several Northern European cuisines.

SINGAPORE BOTANIC GARDENS

(Image courtesy of National Parks Singapore)

At Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, the focus is placed on one particular spice, known the world over for its taste and versatility: ginger. Approximately ten minutes from Nassim Gate, you’ll find Ginger Garden, a wetland oasis complete with a waterfall, leafy fronds, and Amazon water lilies. The one-hectare space is home to 550 species of plants within the ginger order (zingiberales), which includes the ginger family (zingiberacae) as well as seven others.

The gingers are organised according to their region of origin: the Pacific, Africa, Tropical America, Indochina, and, of course, Asia. It is within this last zone where you’ll find the most robust and diverse selection of gingers. There is the epiphytic Hedychium longicornutum; the bronze-leafed Plagiostachys; and, most intriguingly, the Orchidantha, whose orchid-like flowers emit a rotten scent to attract the dung beetles which pollinate them.

Lastly, be sure to seek out the Torch Ginger, whose likeliness graces Ginger Garden’s own logo. It is native to Southeast Asia, with a waxy inflorescence that varies from white to red, striking in its vibrance. Spices are made from its flower buds, while its ripe fruit can be eaten raw as a treat.

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Claire Quan

Editorial Intern

Small in stature, large in appetite. Likely to be found loitering around secondhand bookstores, frequenting dance studios, and petting other people's dogs. Dislikes complete sentences.

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