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Learning Forest at the Botanic Gardens: Paradise regained

Discover the splendours of a wild and wondrous natural land at the Botanic Gardens' Learning Forest

Melody Zaccheus on 03 Apr 2017

The Straits Times


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A century-old "lost world" filled with giant trees and creatures that crawl, glide and flit opened to the public last Friday.


Playing host to birds like the stork-billed kingfisher, and plants such as the pelawan tree with its rainbow-hued trunk, the Learning Forest at the Botanic Gardens was developed by the National Parks Board (NParks) in a project that cost $30 million.


The site within the Gardens' Tyersall-Gallop core, now home to two habitats - freshwater wetlands and lowland forest - has a long history which can be traced back to the early 19th century.


The Learning Forest is divided into five areas - The SPH Walk of Giants, the Lowland Rainforest, Keppel Discovery Wetlands, Bambusetum, and Wild Fruit Tree Arboretum. Highlights include canopy beds, orchid islands and marsh plants.


Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) pledged $1.2 million towards the development of outreach programmes for the walk, while Keppel Corporation gave a donation of $2.08 million.


Sharing the story of the space, Gardens' director Nigel Taylor said a secondary rainforest had developed there naturally over time with some help through the dispersion of seeds from the Botanic Gardens' primary rainforest.


This secondary forest had grown wildly at the southern section of the Learning Forest site.


Meanwhile, the northern part of the site had at one point housed a British military hospital, according to an aerial photograph from the 1950s. In its place today is a recreated freshwater wetland.


Taking into account these historic roots, NParks said the eventual design was decided by the original topography of the space.


The landscape centres on a low-lying base that gradually meanders up into the dense secondary forest, before dipping gently again.


Visitors can trace these layers via a looping boardwalk that will lead them up to a height of 8m without having to climb any steps, said Ms Ng Yuin-Mae, director of development at the Gardens.


She added: "You get to go up to the canopy without feeling that you are climbing a hill."


This "rolling hill quality" of the landscape is a reflection of the Tanglin area, said Dr Taylor, adding that the name Tanglin was likely derived from the term "twa tang leng", which means great east hill peaks. It referred to the numerous hills that were in the area.


To create the 10ha Learning Forest - the size of 15 football fields - NParks conducted analyses of the soil, topography and hydrology of the area. Following surveys, the habitats were restored to conserve a wider variety of native flora and fauna. Most of the native and mature plant species within the site were either retained or transplanted near to their original spots.


To restore the site's existing wetlands, NParks planted three different vegetation belts of plants, mimicking the naturally occurring segments found in freshwater wetlands and lowland forests from Singapore to south Johor, as one moves upriver towards the coast.


This was reproduced from the findings of former Gardens' director EJH Corner, following his exploration of Mandai's wetland and Johor's Sedili Rivers in the 1930s.


On the future of the green marvel as a whole, Dr Taylor said it can only get taller, denser and richer.


For instance, the already stunning collection of old and tall trees is set to be overshot by the "real giants", said Dr Taylor.


"This is the beginning of a new garden and if you can come back in 100 years, you would see a much more mature landscape. Our children and grandchildren will see huge trees there one day where today we see only small saplings."


Discover the Learning Forest

Find out about the highlights of the century-old forest recently unveiled at the Botanic Gardens, such as the SPH Walk of Giants and Keppel Discovery Wetlands. http://str.sg/488N


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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