Plant Stories: Singapore Botanic Gardens

Apart from curiosity about the gardens themselves and the opportunity to see the National Orchid Garden, I had a more personal reason to make sure Singapore Botanic Gardens were at the top of my list for my first visit to the city-state last year.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a Tauranga resident named John Ewart, a former member of staff at the garden before and after its most tumultuous years. John generously shared his story with me, so being able to visit the Gardens in person felt like completing that circle.

John left New Zealand in 1934, aged 25, bound for Kew Gardens where he furthered his training in horticulture. In 1937 he was posted with the Colonial Agricultural Service to Singapore as assistant curator of the Botanic Gardens, a year later spending 12 months working at the Straits Settlement Botanic Gardens in Penang (Malaysia), before returning to Singapore.

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Singapore Botanic Gardens’ rotunda. Photo: Sandra Simpson

With war on the horizon many senior staff were assigned to other duties and demonstration plots of vegetables were started in the Gardens to encourage food production among the public.

Fortunately, John was on leave in New Zealand in 1942 when Singapore fell to the invading Japanese. He was posted to Ghana with the task of increasing cocoa production but 2 years later joined the British Army and served in India before returning to Malaya.

The Gardens had been pitted with shell craters and trenches during the fall of Singapore but fighting had spared the priceless Herbarium. Despite the terrible conditions during  the Japanese occupation, the invading force did however, look after the Gardens, mostly thanks to the quick-thinking Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University, a vulcanologist, who immediately assumed control of the Gardens and evicted the military. Prof. Tanakadate, one of whose fellow officers was related to the Emperor, retained the British directors to administer and assist in repairs. Other staff members were not as fortunate, sent to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, where many lost their lives.

After nearly a month’s reparation work on houses and grounds, “the Gardens regained its calm centre of research activity”.

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A joey palm (Johannesteijsmannia altifrons) at a Garden entry. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Botany professor Kwan Koriba, from the Imperial University of Kyoto, took over as director in December 1942, immersing himself in research on the growth habits of selected Malayan trees and producing a scientific paper on the topic. Eric Holttum and EJH Corner, previously in charge of the Gardens and who remained at liberty throughout the war, also devoted their time to research.

Mr Corner had chosen to stay in Singapore (although his wife and son had escaped) seeing it as his duty to protect the Gardens’ scientific collections. Just five days after the fall of Singapore, he was appointed secretary and interpreter to Prof Tanakadate. Read more about this period of Mr Corner’s life here (he has sometimes been accused of collaboration).

During the war a set of brick steps, still in use today, were built down to the Plant House  using bricks made and installed by Australian prisoners of war. In August 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, a group of veteran PoWs from Australia visited the Gardens to see the steps they’d built.

After demob, John Ewart was one of the first to return to Singapore Botanic Gardens and was in charge of the gardens until the director, Mr Henderson, returned in 1946. John then assumed responsibility for the day-to-day running of the gardens. In 1946 he was also appointed Agricultural Officer for Singapore (increasing crop production to feed the colony) and carried out those duties alongside his work at the gardens. Under moves to nationalisation he was compulsorily retired in 1957.

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Part of the Ginger Garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

While in Singapore John bred an orchid, naming it for his son – Aranda Peter Ewart (registered by the Gardens in 1951) – and apparently there were also two more, also named for his children, Gillian and Andrew. John returned to Singapore in 1986 for the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Gardening Society.

When he and his wife Mary and their family came to Tauranga, John grew carnations for the cut flower market for a time, as well as avocados. He was also a well-respected member of the International Dendrology Society. John died in Tauranga in 2001.

Read the full history of Singapore Botanic Gardens, from 1822 to the present day. The Gardens became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015.