Bromeliads at
Singapore Botanic Gardens

By Derek Butcher

Bromeliad display

Singaporeans are perfectionists. This is clearly demonstrated with the excellence they have achieved over the years with hybrid orchids in what is known as the National Orchid Garden.

The Bromeliad saga started early in the 1990's when Lady Yuen-Peng McNeice from Singapore attended the Chelsea Flower Show in London. She saw the Bromeliads on display from the hot-houses of Europe and was duly impressed by their shapes and colours which she felt could be used with the Orchids back home in Singapore.

In 1994 it was found that Shelldance Nursery in California wanted to sell up as an entity not piece-meal and Lady McNeice offered to buy it for the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Remember that Shelldance Nursery had previously acquired the California Jungle Gardens which had been owned by David Barry and many plants from Howard Yamamoto of Hawaii. This stock would have included some rare material as well as unidentified material but would also have been more suited to sub-tropical weather.

So in 1994 Peter Ang had the job of co-ordinating the move of some 4 tonnes of stock from California to Singapore in three shipments. These were potted up by - let us remember - Orchid experts. Bromeliad names were strange to them as were the growing requirements for each of the species or cultivars involved. A huge challenge to say the least, but they did know where they would be housed!

Singapore is on the Equator and has no real seasons other than one part of the year is a bit drier than the other part! Temperatures are mainly in the mid 30 C during the day and mid 20C at night and annual rainfall is about 2 metres. It is not an island with high mountains to influence the climate!

The Bromeliad collection was under the control of Goh Siew Sim who had a great challenge in her allotted task. If plants are grown from seed, especially Bromeliads, they are greatly adaptable to different climatic conditions but they are much less adaptable as adult plants. Great plantswoman that she is Siew Sim experimented with the material she had and although many died, many were preserved by intuitive and innovative epiphytic, epilithic, epi-anything plantings. Expanded clay and volcanic rock from the Philippines was also pressed into service. BUT, perfectionists that they are, they were worried about correctly named labels getting further apart from their proper owners. This is what I call "A Botanic Garden Syndrome" as it seems to occur in every Botanic Garden that I have visited! The only exception being Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota Florida but they cheated a bit by only having a small visitors area compared to what was out-the-back! The Singaporeans were also worried about the non-flowering of many of their plants.

Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens

In June 2001 Margaret and I were invited to the Singapore Botanic Gardens to see what we could do to help. First, on the plane we were subjected to the compulsory Video on the sights of Singapore. We waited with baited breath for the slot on the Botanic Gardens - the Main Gate flashed by and then the sight and sounds of music from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. A strange thing to have in a Botanic Garden with no Orchids and certainly no Bromeliads shown!

Ian Turner, the Assistant Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens had volunteered to transport us to our Hotel and regrettably received an earful of advice on how the Singapore Airlines should promote the Botanic Gardens! We slept well in air-conditioned comfort and were picked up in the morning by the ever suffering Ian to take us to "work". A blast of hot humid air met us as we got to the foyer steps and we promptly froze while in the air-conditioned Taxi! At work I was a bit lost for words because as each person we were introduced to, said "Hi Uncle Derek!"! But it did mean that I knew they were computer literate. I also noted that all the males were wearing long trousers despite the heat but at least they did not photograph my knees like the Americans were fond of doing! We were given a tour of the Gardens in a golf-buggy type of transport and were finally dropped off at our work area.

Our first tour of the Bromeliad Display evoked the same feelings we had when we were introduced to a first Bromeliad collection some 25 years ago. Does there have to be so many plants? Why are the colours so bright when the sun comes out? It slowly dawned on us that the colour was in the leaves and there were not many flowering plants and the many green leaved ones were going to be a challenge to any so-called identity expert! The natural red colour of the leaves Neoregelia 'Fire Ball' and the larger 'Rio Red' of Hummel origin stood out like beacons. Was this the red light district of Singapore?
Then there were the pink fans from the Aechmea 'J.C. Superstar' perched up high.

Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens

We were proudly shown an almost completed cool 'Montane' house which is under glass so that water evaporation can be used as the cooling agent. It was even suggested that some of the cooler growing Bromeliads might find their way in there! As it was the outside was already dominated by Bromeliads. One side is a curved vertical wall some 5 metres high and 50 metres long that had been rough cast. Bromeliads of the like of Aechmea fasciata, A. fosteriana, A chantinii, A. 'JC Superstar', Neoregelia 'Rio Red', N. 'Green Apple', etc, etc. had been attached to the wall and had firmly attached themselves with their strong roots. A kaleidoscope of colour and showing great ingenuity. As the plants grow and offset the colours will merge together even more. A living wall, if ever I saw one. We did not do much identifying on that first day - mainly planning for the days ahead.

West wall of the Montane house before bromeliad planting
West wall of the Montane house
before bromeliad planting
West wall of the Montane house after bromeliad planting
West wall of the Montane house
after bromeliad planting

All the supervisory work is done by Singaporeans with the manual work being mainly done by contract labour from India and they have very limited English. The Singaporeans do speak English but it is a little different to Aussie English! Very few Singaporeans own a car (many use taxis) and 80% of them live in high-rise apartment blocks some 40 storeys high. Mr. Lee, an Orchid man (they outnumbered the one Bromeliad woman by about 20 to 1!) had a car and was our designated lunch-time driver - we went everywhere with a different place everyday. I can tell you it was damn difficult to get in an Aussie Shout. Because of these high-rise buildings there is a mass of people congregated in a small area and food courts abounded. Each court would comprise some dozen stalls each selling their own specialty meals. We turned down chicken feet, sheep's eyeballs, fish heads, and even porridge (not the Scot's variety!) and stayed with the more traditional pork, duck, or chicken. All good meals (when you had a local adviser you could trust at your elbow) at reasonable prices.

On one such extended lunch hour Mr. Lee had to pick up some ivy for an Orchid project of his and we had a chance to visit the plant nursery area of Singapore. Right in front of us, making us feel at home were rows of Cactus from Gardenworld in Melbourne as well as tillandsias. Our first thoughts were what a mad place to sell dry growers but then there are thousands of apartments with windowsills protected from the rain and you can only get a certain number of plants on one windowsill!

We were staying at the Orchard Parade Hotel which was close to the Orchard Hotel and Margaret was the designated Taxi Driver Advisor. For some reason they could not understand my "Orchd Praid Otel, Please"! And we had to get home to the right place.

It did not take long to get settled into a checking routine while trying to identify the Bromeliads. No wonder they were having strife. One plant might have 5 different numbered tags instead of the regulatory 2 and some might have none! Margaret was kept busy cross checking lists of names we had been supplied with and cross checking numbers. She sat on a chair in the shade and Siva, our Indian Assistant, made sure she was always in the shade! If not she was instructed to "Stand" and then "Sit" as her chair was moved to a more comfortable position. Siva was very good where I had found a plant without a label and wanted to find the same sort of plant that actually did have a label . Off he would trot and disappear into the 'jungle' only to return with what I wanted.

Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens

Siew Sim had horrendous losses with the grey leaved tillandsias. some 200 different types in 1994 but only 20 different types left in 2001! The plants just drowned!
Her success came when she decided to hang the plants on just stainless steel wire! Nylon had just dissolved! It did not take me long to realise that Singapore is not the place for grey leaved tillandsias. Even so some had survived and I was astounded to see a few Tillandsia xerographica in flower. So we could say that the tillandsias there are truly 'Air' plants as they dance on their wires.

We looked and pondered at the non-flowering of some of the plants that were mainly neoregelias and aechmeas from SE Brazil. The plants seemed more intent on offsetting than flowering and although they did make green contrast and good background, ferns would probably have done a better job. I feel sure that this non-flowering is caused by the plants not receiving their natural signals such as varying day length, difference in seasonal weather, and differences in day/night temperatures. The only solution I could suggest was increasing the potassium in the feeding regime or resort to ethylene gas treatment.

My woes in trying to name plants continued when I realised from the lists that Margaret was so valiantly cross-checking had one entry "600 miscellaneous Neoregelia hybrids" and another "200 miscellaneous Aechmea hybrids" - HELP! Could these hybrids have survived in the past 6 years and many of the named clones succumbed? This job was going to be the never ending story.

We started working on a plan of attack that would make the Bromeliad collection at the Singapore Botanic Gardens even better than it is at present. Remember, it is the best Botanic Garden collection I have seen so far but as mentioned in my first line the Singaporeans are perfectionists.

Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens Bromeliads at Singapore Botanic Gardens

1. We have started on a computer photographic record of the plants we saw surviving so they can be identified visually and not by a spurious numbering system. This will be added to as we identify plants in the future from photographs taken of plants as they flower.
2. Have an experimental nursery section where plants grown from seed or offset can be assessed as to their viability under Singapore conditions.
3. Find out how the existing plants that grow well can be induced into flowering so that a hybridisation program can be started.

I'm optimistic that Singapore Bromeliads will be just as well known as Singapore Orchids in the future. The comment by Len Colgan in his article in the Journal of the Bromeliad Society 1999 p165-6 that nobody at the National Orchid Garden Entrance knew anything about the Bromeliad collection will never occur again. I can assure you that a whirlwind visit by a whirlwind Uncle Derek has made all Orchid Men and Women at the Singapore Botanic Gardens realise that there are such things as Bromeliads and they are just down the end of that path!