The Botanic Gardens: A Tale of Gloom and Bloom

loading Carefully curated landscape by Charles Curtis.

Like Penang itself, the island’s famous Gardens had an exciting but turbulent history.

The Penang Botanic Gardens is a much-loved oasis of greenery. It sits not far from George Town’s centre, and attracts plant-lovers, hikers, joggers and strollers through its gates every day. Nestled at the foot of Penang Hill, few casual visitors are however aware of the botanical vision of the men who directed it in its nascent days, not to mention the many false starts and threats to its existence.

During Penang’s early colonial era, the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) in Indonesia were the only place in the world where nutmeg and cloves grew – and it had made the Dutch East India Company, which then controlled the trade, hugely wealthy.

It was thus immensely important for the British East India Company (EIC) to at least smuggle specimens out and find some alternative place where the spices would thrive – and thus break the Dutch monopoly.

The Great Waterfall.

The person who drove the push to grow these spices in Penang specifically was Irish botanist Christopher “Paddy” Smith. He joined an invading expedition to the Moluccas in 1796, and spent 18 months there collecting over 60,000 cloves, nutmeg and other plants.

He thought the climate and soil in Penang to be similar to those on the Spice Islands, and in 1798 cleared an area of 33 acres for a Botanic and Spice Garden in Air Itam. He immediately returned to the Moluccas and spent four more years gathering tens of thousands of plants – the vast majority of which he sent to Penang.

The Garden expanded to cover 130 acres, but although thousands of plants had arrived in Penang, land clearing and planting was long work and labour was in short supply. Many saplings remained unplanted, and those already in situ were not producing the yields anticipated.

By 1804 the EIC, disappointed with the progress and lack of productivity, started questioning the choice of Penang and recommended Bencoolen (Sumatra) as a more suitable location. An order to give up on the Spice Garden was made in 1805, and the land – trees included – was auctioned off.

Eleven years later, Dr Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish surgeon and avid botanist, became superintendent of the Botanic Garden in Calcutta. He travelled to Penang and Singapore in 1822, where he met up with his old friend, Sir Stamford Raffles, who had founded the settlement there three years earlier.

Mohamed Haniff.

Raffles was a keen naturalist, and the two of them agreed to establish Botanic Gardens in both Singapore and Penang. A small Garden was set up in Penang, possibly at the corner of Scotland and Western Roads, and George Porter was made superintendent. But the following year, Raffles, suffering from ill health, returned to England and the governors who followed were less interested in the project. Expenditure was squeezed, and Porter resigned in 1824, although his contributions were recognised in the naming of a shrub, Dracaena porteri, after him – the first of three Penang curators to receive this honour.

The Penang Gardens were sold in 1834, reportedly “because [the Governor’s] wife could not get enough vegetables from the gardens to diminish her cook’s bills”, but it was more likely a result of overall cost-cutting measures in Penang following the transfer of the Straits Settlements administrative government to Singapore in 1832.

There followed a botanical hiatus in both Singapore and Penang. In Singapore, in 1859 the amateur Agri-Horticultural Society established a landscaped ornamental garden and leisure park. Meanwhile, the location of the present Botanic Gardens in Penang was also developing. The beauty of the “Great Waterfall” had long been appreciated, and a road had been cut through the forest as early as 1792 so that travellers could make their way inland to see it. In 1805 a brick aqueduct was erected to channel water from the waterfall via Pulau Tikus to reservoirs in George Town.

The Waterfall became a favourite resort and a common way station for visitors travelling up the winding narrow track to the developing retreat at Penang Hill. It was a popular place for picnics and bathing; one could enjoy nature in a spot much cooler than elsewhere due to the torrents of cold water.

Cheang Kok Choy.

In 1864 a hotel was built nearby. Its bathhouses were designed to collect water from the Waterfall before it had a chance to heat up in the sun. This quiet refuge with cool, refreshing water and beautiful scenery was met with huge success: a visitor in 1865 wrote that “The baths near the Waterfall are a luxury beyond anything of the kind in the East”. The area all around, known as Waterfall Valley, was a plantation called Ellengowan; in a testament to Smith’s earlier efforts it was now bristling with spice trees.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the amateur Botanic Gardens had run into financial difficulties and in 1875 was handed over to a government committee. Under the government, the role of the Gardens was extended from pure recreation to include botanical research and scientific experimentation. Its second superintendent, Nathaniel Cantley, appointed in 1880, prepared a report for the government on the alarming state of the forests in Singapore and Malaya and the threat of diminishing timber reserves. He recommended that a number of forest reserves be established with specific areas put aside for recreational, fuel, and forestry harvesting and protection purposes. A Forestry Department was duly created, and in early 1884 Governor Sir Frederick Weld arranged to buy the land around the Waterfall in Penang to develop a public park at the foot of the newly designated forest reserve surrounding it. Since the forest reserves on Penang Island amounted to around 3,575 hectares, it was essential that someone experienced take charge.

Charles Curtis was appointed to the position of Assistant Superintendent of Forests and Gardens, Penang District, that same year. He had for many years worked as a plant collector in Mauritius, Madagascar, Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas and Borneo for a London nursery, and quickly became excited about the potential of the new Waterfall Gardens. He showed real creativity in the design, framing views of the forested hills at various points within the park and building a circular carriage path so that people could enjoy them. He deliberately left the Gardens’ border porous to integrate the peripheral rainforest.

Waterfall Gardens in 1917.

A mere six years later, a visitor to Penang reported that “At the waterfall itself, beyond the old hotels and the baths, is laid out a very pretty little garden with its grassy slopes, neat paths, and beautiful trees and shrubs. This garden has only been in existence a few years and reflects great credit on the Director who is a far travelled orchid collector.” Curtis wanted to add an ornamental lake to the park but in 1892-1894, the reservoir, still in use today, was instead constructed to improve water supply to the ever-growing population of George Town.

Curtis’ health deteriorated from 1890 onwards, and in 1903 he retired due to a “complete breakdown” from fever, probably malaria. By this time, many plants had been named after him, including a pitcher plant (or monkey cup), Nepenthes curtisii. But George Town’s relentless thirst for water marched on, and a plan to flood the Waterfall Garden to make a much bigger reservoir, first mooted in 1902, constantly threatened the future of the Gardens.

Shockingly, that plan was approved in 1910. The Gardens were handed over to the municipality, and Mohamed Haniff, who had joined the Gardens as an apprentice under Curtis in 1890, was put in charge to manage the transition. The superintendent of the Singapore Botanic Garden, Ridley, lamented that the “world-famed” Garden was “…the greatest, one might say the only, attraction in Penang to the traveller”. He also complained that of the 14 Botanic Gardens that had been founded in the Malay Peninsula over the previous century, no fewer than 11 had been removed, including this one in Penang.

Perhaps his voice, together with other dissenters, dissuaded the authorities from going ahead with the plan, and the flooding plans were abandoned 15 months later and the Gardens survived. Haniff remained in charge for a further 10 years until 1921. After that, he continued to work in the Gardens until his retirement in 1926. Like his predecessors and successors he was a keen plant collector and he joined field expeditions even after his retirement. He co-authored a remarkable 100-page catalogue of Malay medicinal plants and their uses in traditional village medicine. His contributions were recognised and respected, and a new genus in the ginger family was named after him, Haniffia.

The Gardens were again imperilled during the Second World War. The occupying Japanese converted plant houses into weapons and ammunition stores, constructed a torpedo assembly shed, and built tunnels into the hill near the Lily Pond and underground all the way along Waterfall Road. By 1945 the Gardens were extensively damaged and cluttered with war debris, especially after an explosion in one of the tunnels. Frederick Sydney Banfield took charge after the war and toiled to restore the Gardens to their original glory. In 1956 Cheang Kok Choy, an apprentice of Banfield, became curator and stewarded the gardens till Independence and beyond, until 1976 – 20 years of endeavouring to maintain the beauty of the Gardens in balance with the natural by minimising man-made structures.

Curator Dr Saw Leng Guan explaining dispersal.

Cheang’s legacy was almost entirely unravelled when in 2010, a full century after the Gardens were under threat, public fury mounted again following the ill-conceived construction of two enormous arches just outside the Gardens. Fortunately, in a victory for the visions of Curtis, Haniff and Cheang, the arches were eventually demolished. Other anomalies remain, however: the formal gardens, laid out in 1936, have been altered so that they are no longer symmetrical - an element essential to the original design. Similarly, the fern garden was built over by a Japanese Garden, resulting from a well-meaning but badly executed collaboration with the City of Itabashi in Japan. These are only two of the idiosyncrasies of today’s Gardens that the Friends of the Botanic Garden Society hope newly appointed curator Dr Saw Leng Guan will tackle.

Giving the Society high expectations is the fact that, like many of his pre-eminent predecessors, Saw has four species of plants named after him, including the Begonia lengguanii and the Orchidantha lengguanii.


1 “The ‘Waterfall’ Botanic Garden on Pulau Pinang” The Foundations of the Penang Botanic Gardens 1884-1910. Dr David Jones, Jembras 1997.

2 The Penang Botanic Gardens, 1794-1905: the design and development of a tropical botanic garden, Studies in the history of gardens and designed landscapes, Dr David Jones 1998.

3 Colonial Botanic Gardens and World Heritage: the significance of the Penang ‘Waterfall’ Botanic Gardens, Dr David Jones, Penang Story 2002.

4 Gardens Going to Seed, Jeffrey Hardy Quah and Ben Wismen, Penang Monthly June 2010.

5 The Gardens Under Enemy Occupation: 1941-1945, Cheang Kok Choy, Pulau Pinang magazine, Vol 1, number 6.

6 Early Penang Hill Station Author(s): S. Robert Aiken , Geographical Review, Oct. 1987 Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805–1830, Volume 2, Fire, Spice and Edifice, Marcus Langdon 2015.

7 “Christopher Smith & Penang’s first Botanic Garden” – a talk by Marcus Langdon on October 1, 2011.

8 Streets of George Town Penang, Khoo Su Nin, 1993.

9 botanical-gardens-waterfall.htm

10 Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India, John Cameron 1865.


12 Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources, Arnold Wright 1908.

13 The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 9 December 1841, 7 December 1847, 23 July 1890.

14 The Straits Times, 13 May 1865.

15 Straits Times Overland Journal, 15 June 1872.

16 Straits Times Weekly Issue, 16 July 1884, 15 January 1883, 3 August 1887.

17 Agricultural bulletin of the Straits and Federated Malay States. 1910.

18 The Gardens’ Bulletin, Straits Settlements: 1930, Vol. 05, Vol 6.

19 Folia Malaysiana, number 2, 200.0

20 A Guide to the Penang Botanic Gardens, 2000.

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.

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