In 1822, Singapore's first botanic garden was started at Fort Canning by Sir Stamford Raffles. After it lost funding, the present Botanic Garden came into being in 1859, thanks to the efforts of a horticulture society; it was later turned over to the government for upkeep. More than just a garden, this space occupied an important place in the region's economic development when "Mad" Henry Ridley, one of the garden's directors, imported Brazilian rubber tree seedlings from Great Britain. He devised improved latex-trapping methods and led the campaign to convince reluctant coffee growers to switch plantation crops. The garden also pioneered orchid hybridization, breeding a number of internationally acclaimed varieties.
Carved out within the tropical setting lies a marshgarden awash with water lilies and papyrus plants, the sundial garden with pruned hedges, and a ginger garden filled with 300 related specimens of a family that includes lilies, turmeric, and even bananas. Who knew? Sculptures by international artists dot throughout. As you wander, look for the Cannonball tree (named for its cannonball-shaped fruit), Para rubber trees, teak trees, bamboos, and a huge array of palms, including the sealing wax palm -- distinguished by its bright scarlet stalks -- and the rumbia palm, which bears the pearl sago. The fruit of the silk-cotton tree is a pod filled with silky stuffing that was once used for stuffing pillows. Flowers like bougainvilleas and heliconias add beautiful color.
The National Orchid Garden is 3 hectares (7 1/2 acres) of gorgeous orchids growing along landscaped walks. The English Garden features hybrids developed here and named after famous visitors to the garden -- there's the beautifully twisted Margaret Thatcher, the Benazir Bhutto, the Vaclav Havel, and more. The gift shops sell live hydroponic orchids in test tubes for unique souvenirs.
At the Bukit Timah edge of the Botanic Gardens is Asia's first dedicated children's garden. The Jacob Ballas Children's Garden is a lovely place for under-12s to play and explore while developing an appreciation for plants and nature. Children can do outdoor puzzles, learn about food and drinks that comes from plants, explore the maze, or become happily soaked in a fountain play area (bring swimming gear). Admission is free and it's open Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 7pm (tel. 65/6465-0196).
The gardens have three lakes. Symphony Lake surrounds an island band shell for "Concert in the Park" performances by the local symphony and international entertainers. Call visitor services at the number below for performance schedules.
Volunteers run free guided tours of different areas of the park every Saturday at 9am and 10am, often with additional tours at 11am and 4pm. Register 15 minutes before the walk at the Visitor Centre near Nassim Gate.