By Inez Tan
‘There is actually a lot to appreciate about plants,’ Dr Adrian Loo, the former Dean of the Raffles Science Institute says as he shows me some of his favourite green spaces on the campus. ‘We use them, but we don’t really have the culture of understanding the plants we grow.’
The fact that a whole host of plants (and therefore, animals) can be found in RI’s sprawling 18-hectare campus should not come as a surprise to most people; after all, RI is home to ‘over 34,000 trees and shrubs spanning over 40 species’. These include the unique orchids the students of the Raffles biological Sciences Society had hybridised a few years ago, and the fruit trees—including a very young dragonfruit plant—growing in a green spot behind the staff car park near Gate 11. Despite this, however, I had remained under the impression that these are just rare exceptions; that most of the plants on campus exist solely for decorative or practical purposes—an extension of a manicured garden city where plants are often grown but are rarely celebrated. Here is where I am wrong; the flora and fauna of RI all have a history, and stories to tell.
Canteen (Year 1–4)
A Banyan tree, sprawling and majestic, stood tall next to the canteen of the old RI on Bras Basah Road and in the minds of the boys who used to play, study, and form deep friendships in its shade. Even though it has been decades since the Banyan tree mysteriously toppled and the RI campus was replaced by the current Raffles City Shopping Centre, the tree remained significant to those young men in white—so significant that they published a book titled Under the Banyan Tree to chronicle their experiences in those impressionable years.
Native to Singapore, the Malayan Banyan (Ficus microcarpa) is a strangler fig. Birds swallow its fruit and disperse the seeds through their faeces, and the seeds that germinate on the branch of another tree will develop entwining stems that will literally choke and perhaps even kill the host plant as the Banyan continues to grow upwards to reach the sunlight. However, the Banyan can also grow as a bonsai, or as a singular tree like the young specimen that now stands next to the Year 1–4 Canteen, which was planted in 2007 to commemorate the release of Under the Banyan Tree.
Banyans have multiple stems and characteristic aerial roots hanging from the branches of its dense crown. Like all figs, it oozes a whitish sap. Interestingly, figs have an extremely close symbiotic relationship with wasps. Each of the 800 over species of figs cannot live in the absence of a corresponding species of wasp, which pollinates the plants and depends on their fruit for food and shelter.
Twining themselves around the structure that borders a fountain in the middle of the Boarding Complex are several unexpected long-time residents of RI Boarding—grapes. Mr Yeh, the landscaper who achieved this feat more than a decade ago, must have had ‘grape expectations’ of the school. Even though grape plantations exist in some regions of Malaysia and Indonesia, grapes are hard to find in tropical countries because the high humidity encourages rot and fungus problems. Yet, the grapes of RI Boarding have survived for 15 years or more.
Mr Fabian Ng of the Estates Department, who oversees the school gardeners, says that the grapes need a lot of care. This includes ample exposure to direct sunlight and a lot of fertiliser. The fruits they bear taste sharp and acidic, so there is no need to suffer from a case of sour grapes if you have not tried them yet.
Mendelian Corridor (Year 5–6)
If you take the MRT to Marymount station to get to RI, you will most likely enter the school via Gate 10 and walk along a covered walkway that forks in the middle—one pathway leads to block H, where you’ll find the Year 5–6 General Office and the Biodiversity Pond, while the other leads to block K, which houses the E W Barker Institute of Sports. However, some of the visitors you may meet on your journey along the walkway did not arrive there by train. One of them is the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus), a local relative of the Monarch butterfly, which can be found fluttering amongst various patches of Blood-flowers (Asclepias curassavica) planted along the path.
Truth be told, ‘Plain Tiger’ is probably a misnomer—both caterpillar and adult are tawny orange, with bold black and white markings. In fact, the Plain Tiger’s beautiful, striking colouration possibly made it one of the first butterflies to be used in art, and images of its ancestors can be found in a 3,500-year-old Egyptian fresco in Luxor. The Plain Tiger’s larval host plant is the Blood-flower, a kind of milkweed. Both caterpillar and butterfly retain poisonous glycosides from the milkweed, and are hence distasteful to predators. Incidentally, the Plain Tigers can also be found fluttering gaily around the Blood-flowers planted in the Year 5–6 Sculpture Garden.
The covered walkway has been affectionately dubbed ‘the Mendelian Corridor’ by members of RI’s science community in reference to Gregor Mendel, the ‘father of Modern Genetics’ known for his mid-19th century experiments with pea plants. True to its unofficial namesake, the Mendelian Corridor is home to many legumes like the Blue Pea (Clitoria ternatea), which is used in Malay cooking to colour kueh blue. Some parts of the Corridor are covered in brightly-coloured Honolulu Creepers (Antigonon leptopus), which have been all too successful at attracting bees.
The Corridor was jointly conceptualised and conceived by Mrs Selvamani Nair and Mrs Christina Khoo of the RI (Year 5–6) Biology Department, the students of the Biological Sciences Society and the Estates Department.
‘What we did was try to plant plants with flowers that will brighten the walkway, so that when students walk in or out of school they can have a sense of biophilia—the feeling of being close to nature—which may help them relax a bit. We wanted this place to be flowery. You don’t usually see a Singapore garden with a lot of flowers, but here you do,’ says Dr Adrian Loo.
Biodiversity Pond (Year 5–6)
Most students would have walked past the Biodiversity Pond, an enclave near the canteen that is home to many plants and animals native to Southeast Asia. However, not many know that the large fish that glare at them as they walk in and out of the school campus are all edible.
For instance, the herbivorous giant gourami—which ‘kiss’ to assess the strength of other males of the same species—is popular in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. It is also dried and eaten in certain regions of India. The clown knife fish, which can swim backwards by undulating its elongated ventral fin, can be found in the sluggish waters of lakes and floodplains. It is also a highly important food source in Southeast Asia. Soup made from the knife fish is reportedly given to people suffering from measles.
Also taking up residence in the main display pond is the Pacu, the ‘vegetarian cousin of the piranha’ from South America with a mouthful of horrifying human-like teeth. In its native environment, the Pacu eats big seeds that fall into the river, but a cursory Google search reveals that residents of Papua New Guinea have nicknamed it the ‘ball-cutter’—rumour has it that it has bitten off the testicles of several fishermen.
The Raffles Biodiversity Pond was first conceptualised by the school in 2007. With advice from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in the National University of Singapore, RI’s science community decided upon the native plants and animals (that have strong educational attributes in terms of economic use, ethno-botanical history and interesting ecology) that would be showcased in the pond. Mr Tan Nam Seng, our Senior Deputy Principal, and Mr Seah Chye Ann, the former Dean Academic studies, played a role in getting the pond to stabilise so that the fish could thrive. The Estates Department helped make the pond a reality, and by March 2009, it was filled with water and flora was planted around it. These include the dwarf papyrus, an aquatic or emergent tender perennial plant that is a relative of the giant papyrus used to make mankind’s first paper. Accompanying them are water lilies from the personal collection of a former Chinese Teacher, Mr Goh Tock Woo.
Also of note are the ornamental wild banana plants surrounding the pond, which bear fruit containing seeds—unlike the common seedless Cavendish bananas that one can find in supermarkets. Contrary to popular belief, bananas plants are not trees. They are actually the world’s largest herb, and their fruit are really large berries. As cultivated bananas have no seeds and are propagated via conventional vegetative reproduction, they are all genetically identical and are exceptionally vulnerable to disease. The Cavendish bananas we now eat are reportedly smaller and less tasty than the Gros Michel bananas that were commonly sold and consumed up until the early 1960s—the Gros Michel is now extinct, having fallen victim to the highly virulent Panama disease.