Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fun with Food Gardening at Bollywood Veggies Farm (Singapore)

Text & Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

In a departure from our usual walks on the wild side, the Education Committee organised our first food gardening workshop and farm tour at Bollywood Veggies Farm (located in the Kranji area in the northwestern part of Singapore) on 16 April 2016. Our participant profile took an interesting turn – we had over 30 adults and only one kid. Nature educator Andrew Tay, who is conversant in both plant and animal ecology, was our knowledgeable guide.

Bollywood Veggies Farm was a patchwork of fruit and vegetable plots which we saw in our farm tour.

In our farm tour, Andrew fed us an intriguing fact when we came across a cluster of papaya trees – they were either male or female, identifiable by their flowers. Male trees have showy inflorescences, while females produce individual blooms that as young buds resemble the shape of the fruit (see photos). Only females can produce yummy papayas. That solved the mystery for a few participants, of why some papaya trees never yield fruits. Former Plant Group Chairperson Angie Ng introduced us to the Jambu Bol or Malay Apple, a rarer and tastier cousin of the Jambu Ayer or Water Apple, which some of us sampled. We saw a compost heap with a Cocoyam growing in the middle of it. C
omposting is a great way to recycle plant waste material. One can create a balanced heap by adding alternate layers of greens (eg. leafy trimmings) and browns (eg. woody prunings). In time, it will all rot down to produce a nutrient-rich compost, serving as a natural fertilizer or soil conditioner.
Male papaya trees have showy inflorescences (left), while females produce individual blooms that as young buds resemble the shape of the fruit (right).

Bollywood cultivates an astounding diversity of plants with multitudinous uses. We found out that the commonly-seen Moses-in-the-Cradle (aka Oyster Plant), has leaves that can be boiled as herbal tea to relieve heatiness, and treat a range of ailments including fever, cough, bronchitis and rheumatism. The farm grows different banana varieties including the red kind. One participant shared his experience of peeling a wild banana only to discover it filled with huge seeds and little flesh. Many were surprised to learn that only modern banana cultivars are seedless.
Andrew Tay taught us the basics of growing our own food, shedding light on soils, pots, organic fertilisers, watering and methods of plant propagation.

We then proceeded to Bollywood’s open-air shed for the workshop. As an avid gardener, Andrew revealed that he has a thriving food garden along the corridor of his flat. We were impressed with the fantastic mix of plants available for us to bring home – Mint, Sawtooth Coriander, Kang Kong, Rosemary, Lemongrass, Aloe Vera, Basil, trays of cute baby Bok Choy (Xiao Bai Cai), and many other greens that came from his own garden, plus cuttings courtesy of Bollywood. Our first topic was about soil. Andrew had ordered for us a customised blend of clay, sand and compost, with no added chemical fertilizer, pesticide or fungicide. For organic fertilizer, we could choose from pellets of sheep dung (baked till near-odourless) or earthworm poop. Angie was quick to share that the best fertilizer is free – our own urine, properly diluted of course.

A fantastic mix of plants available for us to bring home.
Next, we learnt that plastic pots retain moisture better, while clay ones allow the roots to breathe easier. Participants were encouraged to experiment with what grows best in any combination of pots, locations (outdoors or indoors with morning sun only), watering and fertilizing frequencies. An interesting segment was about plant propagation using cuttings, seeds, rhizomes or clump division. Many vegetables can have their tops cut off with stumps left growing to produce more leafy shoots for multiple harvests. When greens overgrow, transplanting comes in. To ensure success, one should partially trim most leaves to reduce the overall energy burden, and allow the plant to concentrate on forming fresh roots and shoots in the new location.
It was then time for us to get our hands in the dirt. We had great fun picking up small stones to cover the drainage holes of our plastic pot, mixing the soil with a teaspoon of earthworm poop, and potting up our plant selections. Many brought home extra plantlets and cuttings wrapped in moist newspaper. Participants were also given a three-page information sheet that outlined the finer details of eco-food gardening. We ended with a scrumptious set lunch at Poison Ivy Cafe, and were entertained by none other than farm owner and stellar storyteller Ivy Singh-Lim herself. We thank her for the use of her farm venue and nature shed for free. We are immensely grateful to Andrew for volunteering his time and effort, and thank Angie Ng, Moira Khaw, Lena Chow, and Timothy Pwee for being great helpers.

National Library-NSS Bird Walk at Labrador Nature Reserve (Singapore)

By Timothy Pwee

Amongst the old books that the National Library is displaying at its ongoing “From the Stacks” exhibition is Chasen and Robinson “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”. This five-volume ornithological reference for Southeast Asia was first published in 1927. Today, it remains as one of the most important references for ornithologists working in Southeast Asia and serves as a baseline text for regional field guide authors.

The five-volume “Birds of the Malay Peninsular” is on display at the National Library’s “From the Stacks” exhibition till August 2016. All rights reserved, NLB, 2016.

To bring to life the rare book “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”, 31 participants were treated to the wild birds of Labrador Nature Reserve.

To bring this rare book to life, the library asked the NSS Education Committee to conduct an introductory birding excursion to Labrador Nature Reserve (southern part of Singapore) on 19 March 2016, led by Education Committee Chairperson Gloria Seow. On the chartered ride from the library to Labrador, Gloria regaled the full busload of 31 participants with fascinating facts on Singapore’s birds, their habitats, ecology and migration. Timothy Pwee then taught us the basics of using the binoculars, and gave some background on Labrador Park’s history. We were met by three more guides at the reserve: Lee Ee Ling, Gerard Francis and Lena Chow.

The birding was not spectacular in our short hour foray. But for beginners, it proved fascinating even to encounter a handful of colourful garden species. We observed the Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans), Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis), Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) and various swiftlet species up close through birding scopes and binoculars. A pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds (Nectarina jugularis) even came down to eye level to peruse the flowers, giving those lucky enough to see them sterling views. Many were awed by the highlights: a pair of thermalling Oriental Honey-buzzards (Pernis ptilorhyncus) and a majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) out at sea. Timothy revealed that our sea eagle is in the same genus as America’s symbol, the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Participants were introduced to other denizens of Labrador Park, including a near-invisible Miagrammopes spider.

Special thanks to Ee Ling and Gerard for bringing along their scopes and to Lena for adding to our participants’ edification by pointing out the butterflies: Painted Jezebel (Dendrophthoe pentandra), Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida), Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra agina) and more. Besides birds and butterflies, Gerard introduced us to the ecology of the fig tree when we came across an Indian Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica). We even found a small green Miagrammopes spider on a broken twig.

The group then returned to the library to view the exhibition, in particular the “Birds of the Malay Peninsula” five-volume set. The first and second volumes were penned by Robinson in the 1920s when he retired from the directorship of the museums of the Federated Malay States. When he died in 1929, Chasen took up the work with the help of Robinson's notes and papers, publishing two more volumes. Only much later in 1976 did Lord Medway and David Wells push out the final volume. Birders might know that Wells went on to publish his weighty two-volume “Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula”.

Collared and White-throated Kingfishers in “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”. Both scientific and common bird names have changed over time. All rights reserved, NLB, 2016.

The NUS Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum has digitised and made available online volumes 1 to 4 at, including the original text and colour plates. However, there is nothing like seeing the real thing. The “From the Stacks” exhibition can be viewed at Level 10 of the National Library Building. It ends on 28 August 2016. As a reflection of the book’s rarity, a complete set today costs upwards of $1,500.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Butterflies at HortPark (Singapore)

By Soh Zhi Bing, Photos by Soh Kam Yung & Gloria Seow

We have been dubbed the “Butterfly Boys” as Daryl Ng (11 years old) and I (9 years old) are butterfly enthusiasts who regularly go on trips with NSS’s Butterfly and Insect Group (BIG). On 16 January 2016, we both became first-time butterfly guides to a group of peers and their caregivers at HortPark (located off Alexandra Road in Singapore).

Daryl (right) and I releasing a newly-eclosed Mottled Emigrant that I had been rearing.

We arrived early that morning. My dad (Soh Kam Yung) and I brought along the caterpillars and pupae of the Tawny Coster (Acraea violae), Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus), Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona pomona), Mottled Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe pyranthe), Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus malayanus) and Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus) which I had been rearing at home. We were immediately swarmed by kids who were fascinated with the constant chomping of the caterpillars on the leaves of their respective host plants. They asked plenty of questions and were curious about the life cycle of the different butterfly species.

Auntie Gloria then presented Daryl and I as the day’s guides. We each had to tell our stories of how we came to love butterflies. For me, I got interested when I attended the Butterfly Count by NParks where I learnt how to identify most of Singapore’s common butterflies. After that, I bought the book “Butterflies of Singapore” by Khew Sin Khoon which was where I learnt about the rarer butterflies such as the Vagrant (Vagrans sinha sinha). Daryl said that since young, he has always loved nature. In primary one, he reared the Tawny Coster as his caterpillar project. It reached its fifth instar, but the following day he was horrified to see a shrivelled-up brown pupa instead. Apparently, his caterpillar had been infected by a parasitic wasp. He felt sorry for it and soon after, became a butterfly lover. What a bittersweet tale!

HortPark’s Butterfly Garden produced the Striped Blue Crow, Common Bluebottle, and Singapore’s ‘National Butterfly’ by popular vote the Common Rose.

We then walked over to a Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) patch, also known as Giant Milkweed, located near the park’s entrance to look for the Plain Tiger. Sadly, our first Plain Tiger caterpillar was quite dead. We explained that it was the likely victim of a parasitic wasp (same as Daryl’s first caterpillar) that had injected the caterpillar with its eggs. These eggs had probably hatched inside the poor caterpillar and the wasp larvae will literally eat their way out. No wonder this caterpillar had an ominous black shade to its usual vibrant colours. Thankfully, we encountered another Plain Tiger caterpillar – this one very much alive and chomping. By feeding on the poisonous leaves of the Crown Flower, the caterpillars themselves become toxic to birds. As a bonus, we spotted a huge and hairy Yellow Tussock Moth (Calliteara horsfieldii) caterpillar nearby. We told the kids that the hairs of such caterpillars typically sting badly and should not be handled.

On the walk to the Butterfly Garden which was some distance from the start, we found a well-camouflaged Katydid that feeds on leaves and aphids. We were distracted halfway by a giant ball-in-a-maze puzzle. Several of us had fun coordinating amongst ourselves to manoeuver a metal ball towards the centre of the maze.
Leopard Butterfly resting on its host plant, the Indian Prune.

Arriving at the Butterfly Garden, we were greeted by two large Striped Blue Crows (Euploea mulciber mulciber) gliding past regally. We also encountered the attractive Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon luctatius) which has a faster flight than the Crows. The kids were delighted to say hi to several Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae asteris) butterflies, Singapore’s ‘National Butterfly’ by popular vote. This beauty likely won the most votes for wearing the colours of the National Flag on its wings. Unfortunately, we did not see Singapore’s largest butterfly, the Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus). Both of these butterflies share the same host plant – the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata) – a creeper that is grown in the Butterfly Garden along with other host and nectar plants. We inspected this creeper, and found a good number of cute Common Rose caterpillars in different instars feasting on it.
Auntie Lena next pointed out the Curry Leaf Plant (Murraya koenigii) on which were many White Tortoise Beetles (Silana farinose) and their brownish larvae. The larva of this introduced species from Sri Lanka carries its excreta above itself as a deterrent to predators such as birds. What a strange and clever defence tactic!

On the way back, we found a tree full of hanging Bagworm Moth (family Psychidae) cocoons. We also came across a Leopard (Phalanta phalantha phalantha) butterfly resting on its host plant, the Indian Prune (Flacourtia rukam). We were both glad to have shown everyone so many things, and to see that people were enjoying themselves.