By Inez Tan
ROPES COURSE (YEAR 5–6)
Tucked in a picturesque corner of the Year 5–6 campus and separated from the running track by greenery, the Ropes Course presents a serene and secluded area where students can forget their worries (or fear of heights, in the case of students actually attempting the course). However, not many of them realise that some of the leafy residents around the Ropes Course are relics of a significant chapter of Singapore’s history.
Prior to the arrival of the British in 1819, much of Singapore was covered in dense virgin rainforest. As Singapore developed into a major port, labourers felled the forests’ hardwood trees for timber and replaced them with crops like pepper and gambier. However, that changed in the late 19th century when Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, the first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, decided to tap on the Pará rubber tree’s (Hevea brasiliensis) agricultural potential. Ridley had developed a new method of rubber-tapping that could be performed without killing the tree. Despite this, it took him years to convince Malayan coffee growers to switch to growing rubber instead, and his indefatigable insistence earned him the nickname ‘Mad Ridley’. Fortunately, Ridley’s efforts eventually paid off and in 1896, Malaya’s first rubber estates were established. Ridley’s method of rubber-tapping, the increase in demand for rubber (due to the rise of the automobile industry) and the advent of a virulent disease amongst coffee plants made rubber the most important enterprise in the Straits Settlements. Singapore eventually abandoned its plantations, but pockets of rubber trees can still be found in areas like MacRitchie reservoir.
Rubber is not a local plant; the first Pará rubber seeds that arrived at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1877 (twelve years before Ridley did) were smuggled in from Brazil. Rubber trees secrete latex as a natural defence against the insects that bite it. These include cicadas, which use their probing mouthparts to pierce through microgaps in the bark to suck sap from the inner bark of the rubber tree. The latex causes the mouthparts of these herbivorous insects to stick together and prevents them from feeding on the plant. Don’t you wish humans could do something similar to defend themselves against mosquitoes?
Another plant one can find at the Ropes Course is the stunning Torch Ginger (Etlingera elatior). Type ‘Torch Ginger’ in Google and many delicious-sounding recipes turn up in the search results—its buds are an important ingredient in rojak, assam laksa and curries. When cut, the buds release an aromatic citrus fragrance.
Sadly, it is possible that the current Ropes Course will not be around for much longer as construction work on the North-South Expressway is slated to take place in that area.
COURTYARDS (YEAR 1–4)
One of the most striking architectural features of the Year 1–4 campus is its many small courtyard gardens, which are home to native as well as exotic plants.
Just outside the Research Lab near the Science Block grow two vines (or liana) of the Malpighiaceae family that the Year 1–4 students study for their Research Education projects: the Maiden’s Jealousy (Tristellateia australasiae) and its endangered relative, Aspidopterys concava. Although 85% of the members of the Malpighiaceae family are native to the Americas, these two vines are local.
The Maiden’s Jealousy’s popularity as an ornamental plant can be attributed to its beautiful yellow flowers, which are frequented by bees, butterflies and sunbirds. When it’s not part of a landscaping project, the Maiden’s Jealousy is most commonly found in mangrove forests, tidal swamps and estuaries. However, its cousin, Aspidopterys concava, is not as widespread; the specimen we have growing outside the laboratory was actually rescued from a forest in Mandai that has since been cleared. The Aspidopterys concava produces small clusters of flowers and winged seeds, and it is most commonly found in the northern region of Singapore.
Incidentally, the most unfortunate member of the local Malpighiaceae family is quite possibly the Hiptage sericea; the last known wild specimen was flooded out when the Seletar Dam was built, making it extinct in Singapore.
The Year 1–4 courtyards are also home to ferns, spices and palm trees like the Date Palm, Oil Palm (a popular crop in Malaysia), and Washingtonia (which has old branches that dangle straight down beneath its crown to form a ‘petticoat’). In the corners of one of the courtyards are several Ruffled Fan Palms (Licuala grandis), a common ornamental plant that originated from Vanuatu. The layout of the courtyard makes them look strangely grandiose as they watch silently over a cluster of short bamboo in the middle of the space.
In a small field behind the Science Block and its courtyards stand several native trees which the Year 1–4 students use for their Research Education experiments. These include the Belinjau (Gnetum gnemon), a rather primitive evergreen related to conifers and pines that is best known for being the main ingredient in bitter and addictive Belinjau crackers. Next to it is the Shorea leprosula which can grow up to 60m high; they are the tallest trees on Bukit Timah hill, emerging from the canopy and towering over the other trees. Accompanying them are several Freshwater Mangroves (Carallia brachiata), which have bark that is traditionally used as medicine for itchiness and mouth ulcers in India.
VARIOUS LOCATIONS (YEAR 1–6)
The Nibong palm (Oncosperma tigillarium) can be found near the Hullett Memorial Library of the Year 1–4 campus as well as the Manna Café porch and Amphitheatre of the Year 5–6 campus. A beautiful tree with graceful drooping fronds and wild-looking black spines, its water-resistant wood is used to make kelongs and posts for fishing stakes.
There is no doubt that cats are popular on the Internet. In fact, the Facebook page that purportedly belongs to the fuzzy ‘RJ Cat’ that roams the Year 5–6 campus is so well-liked that Raffles Press celebrated a milestone when their page garnered more ‘Likes’ than hers! The RJ Cat’s Facebook page also had the honour of receiving a passing mention in The Straits Times last year (‘C for Confidence with The Big Spell’ by Serene Goh, The Sunday Times, April 28, 2013).
The grey and white cat was first spotted in the Year 5–6 campus around ten years ago. Presently, she has become very used to human company, sleeping next to students who are studying furiously and allowing passers-by to stroke and pat her. RJ Cat is joined by at least three other cats in the Year 5–6 campus: a black cat, a ‘tuxedo’ cat, and a tabby cat.
Feral cats are a common sight in Singapore and many of them—RJ Cat included—have clubbed or kinked tails. This was observed as early as 1783, when William Marsden, Fellow of the Royal Society and late Secretary to the President and Council of Fort Marlborough, wrote that the Malay cats’ tails are ‘imperfect and knobbed at the end.’ In his book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868, famous naturalist Charles Darwin also noted that ‘throughout an immense area, namely, the Malayan Archipelago, Siam, Pequan, and Burmah, all the cats have truncated tails about half the proper length, often with a sort of knob at the end.’
Regardless of the tale of their tails, the cats have become part of our school community, warming the hearts of cat-loving students and staff as they cosy up to us for food, explore the installation art in our school corridors, and lie sprawling on the canteen floor on warm afternoons.
‘A Tale of Flora and Fauna’ was originally meant to appear as one article in the previous issue of the Rafflesian Times, which focused on our school’s link with nature. However, a short walk around the school with the former Dean of the Raffles Science Institute, Dr Adrian Loo (who is now deputy director for research at Gardens by the Bay), and a chat with Dr Jeffrey Lee (Chief Specialist, Biology, Year 1–4) quickly revealed more interesting plants and animals than can be contained within a single article. In fact, besides the plants and animals mentioned in this two-parter, RI is also home to fruit trees such as papaya, mango and noni, and frequently receives winged visitors like merbuks, yellow-vented bulbuls and kingfishers. There is even a Simpoh Air plant (infamously known as ‘CB leaf’) near the E W Barker Institute of Sports.
Although most members of the school community usually walk past the plants without knowing what they are, this article was written to shed light on their names and traits. Moreover, the names of some more of the Year 5–6 plants and animals have been recently revealed by labels created by the helpful members of the Raffles Leadership Institute’s Ecological Literacy Programme and the Raffles Community Advocates.
So the next time you are feeling stressed and need to take a break from studying (or marking!), why not try getting out of your seat, walking around the school, and getting to know the plants and creatures that call our campus home? Let nature heal your soul!