Uncle Shawn pointing out the distinctive features of Dipterocarp (primary forest trees) leaves.
Plants are usually seen as less interesting than fauna like birds or butterflies. This misperception was dispelled by none other than NSS President Dr Shawn Lum himself, when he guided a small group of kids and their parents in a show-and-tell tour of the Singapore Botanic Gardens on 15 October 2011.
Instead of taking the beaten trail to the left of the Visitor Centre as most people would do, Uncle Shawn, a botanist by training, decided to show us his ‘secret garden’. We took the sheltered path to the right, climbing up some stairs until we hit the elevated car park. Here, he introduced us to the Caribbean pine, a native of Central America, Cuba and Jamaica, among other areas in the region. Kids were asked to pick up the aromatic pine needles that littered the ground. With a sniff and some imagination, one could be transported to the coniferous forests of faraway lands.
We traversed the hilly terrain and descended upon the 2.5 hectare Healing Garden that was scheduled to be open a few days later on 21 October 2011. This garden forms the largest collection of healing plants in Singapore, showcasing 500 species from Southeast Asia. There is even an iPhone app by NParks for visitors to learn more about its medicinal wonders. Uncle Shawn was slightly disappointed to find the Garden locked.
Still, it did not stop him from enlightening us on the interesting specimens at its periphery. One such tree was the Buah Keras or Candlenut (Aleurites moluccana). Its fruit is used by the Malays, Nyonyas and Indonesians to cream, thicken and flavor their curries. Candlenuts are toxic when raw. They are so named because of their oily seeds. Hawaiians string them together, stick in a wick, and use them as candles. Uncle Shawn revealed that as a boy growing up in Hawaii, he failed numerous times to light the seeds. He only succeeded doing so 40 years later, an episode that brought him great delight.
We felt lucky to see the ephemeral and elusive Stinkhorn Mushroom which usually springs up in the night and is wilted by midday.
We then came across an Annatto tree which has fruits with an attractive reddish pulp around the seeds. These make a yellow dye that is used as a food colouring agent for some cheeses, butter and more. Natives of Central and South America use the pulp to make red body paint and lipstick. We then spied the familiar Blue Pea (Clitoria ternatea) climbing freely on a nearby fence. The water-extracted blue dye from its flowers is employed in Malay and Nyonya cooking to colour glutinous rice for Kuih Ketan and Nyonya Chang. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used as a memory enhancer, antidepressant and sedative agent. Uncle Shawn suggested that the Education Group could hold an art session centred entirely on natural plant dyes. What a brilliant idea!
The Nutmeg fruit, seed and (reddish) aril can be used to make three cherished food ingredients.
As we moved along, Uncle Shawn picked up a couple more leaves, pods, seeds and fruits to show the kids. These included rubber seeds, leaves of Dipterocarps (primary forest trees) and fruits of the Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). In fact, the sprawling Nutmeg tree proved to be most fascinating. It is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices: Nutmeg and Mace. Both have similar flavours, with Nutmeg being slightly sweeter while Mace is more delicate (and expensive). Nutmeg powder is made from the seeds of the tree, while mace is derived from the lacy reddish aril of the seed. Mace is also cherished for the orange hue it imparts to food. The Nutmeg fruit itself can also be eaten. It is typically cooked in sugar to make the candy Manisan Pala, a familiar preserved fruit.
Kids were not only thrilled by the many plants we saw, we also had our fair share of animal encounters. These included an Asian Toad, several Changeable Lizards and even a one metre long Black Spitting Cobra that slithered across our path! This snake is supposed to be common in gardens, scrubland and forests. When provoked, it would spit its venom at the eyes of victims, temporarily blinding them. Thankfully, all we saw was the retreating form of the snake as it disappeared into some bushes. Indeed, we had a very fine morning exploring one of Uncle Shawn’s favourite hangouts!