The Penang Botanic Gardens – A Green Gem Like No Other

By Professor Zulfigar Yasin

January 2022 FEATURE
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The colourful Wagler’s pit viper, Tropidolaemus wagleri, is a common hunter in the lowland forest. The Penang Botanic Gardens lies adjacent to the tropical rainforest and shares many of its inhabitants.

FOR NORMAL VISITORS to Penang, the Botanic Gardens, fondly called the Waterfall Gardens, does not rank high on their list of must-visit places. But this treasure is all the more popular among avid botanists who relish the Gardens' steep legacy of early botanical conservation efforts.

Established in 1884, the Gardens measure 72 acres and was initially used for the planting of spices such as nutmeg, cloves and pepper. It also offered the opportunity for transient wayfarers to indulge in the tropical rainforest before they sailed on to Singapore.

Christopher Smith, a botanist trained at Kew Gardens and who operated under the instructions of the East India Company, introduced spice plants to Penang, to the Air Itam and Sungai Kluang (possibly Gelugor) areas. But it was Charles Curtis, the assistant superintendent of the Gardens and Forests Department of the Straits Settlements, who would later design the Penang Botanic Gardens.

The landscape was to be simple and natural, in keeping with the ideals of the English Landscape Garden Movement of the 18th century. The jungles were cleared for viewing vistas and for the construction of walkways with carefully selected viewing points. A nursery and plant houses were also built, and the soil improved for horticulture.

One of the Gardens' main attractions is the 120-metre waterfall, which with the construction of a small dam later, became a water source for the local community. Ibrahim Munshi (son of Munshi Abdullah) wrote about this same waterfall in "Kisah Pelayaran", as a fresh water source for ships calling at Penang.

A Repository for Plants

The Penang Botanic Gardens and the Singapore Botanic Gardens shared similar plantings and exchanged botanical specimens, perhaps to ensure a safe depository and protection against the dangers of disease and fire. It was also in the Penang Botanic Gardens that the first rubber trees of the country were planted, alongside commercial canes for sugar.

A local, Mohammed Haniff, worked as a field assistant under Curtis and enjoyed his tutelage on many expeditions. Haniff proved to be an avid botanist and was appointed assistant curator to the Singapore Botanic Gardens until 1926. Upon his retirement, he and Curtis collaborated on the ethnobotanical volumes, The Malay Village Medicine (1930) and Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (1935).

Haniff was also the first Malayan to have a botanical genus named after him, a ginger family called Haniffia – a prestigious feat in the eyes of the scientific fraternity. Other local plants named after him include the orchids Dendrobium haniffii (Ridley, 1924) and Bulbophyllum haniffii (Carr, 1932).

A Precarious Early Existence

Throughout its history, the Gardens had had a share of threats to its existence. A proposal was made in 1910, for example, to flood the Gardens into a reservoir; this fortunately did not come to pass. During World War II, tunnels were dug around its lily pond for Japanese ammunition storage and for the construction of a torpedo assembly station.

Some local staff remained during the Occupation to maintain the Gardens, but the lack of funds and management took their toll and the Gardens was left to deteriorate. Thankfully, the large trees Curtis planted survived, some of which even to this day. One is still able to spot the splendid Sengkuang tree (Dracontomelon dao) with its characteristic bladed buttress roots rising to the sky, and the Cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) bursting with large and fragrant pink flowers; sadly, the specimen by the lily pond's entrance from my childhood jaunts at the Gardens is no more. The large Ipoh tree near the main entrance still stands as well; a photo from the early 1900s showed it to be smaller-sized but already majestic in its bearing. In 1956, Cheang Kok Choy was appointed the first Malayan curator of the Penang Botanic Gardens, to continue the work of his predecessors.

The majestic Ipoh tree, Antiaris Toxicaria, famed for its poisonous latex, can climb to more than 40 metres high. Two magnificent specimens can be found about 120 metres from the entrance to the Penang Botanic Gardens.

A Rich Botanical Heritage

Penang's rich botanical past reaches back beyond the colonial era, and some of its towns continue to carry the names of trees, such Jelutong, Gelugor, Melaka and Kulim. Penang itself is named after the areca palm. Ibn Battuta, who travelled the region from 1325 to 1354, wrote of the cultivation and use of spices and timber here to produce aromatics: "The Indian aloe tree is like the oak; except that the bark is thin. Its leaves are exactly like oak leaves. It gives no fruit, the trunk does not become very large, and the roots are long and extend far. The aromatic smell is in the roots; the wood of the trunk and the leaves have no aroma".

Gibb, an authority on the travels of Ibn Battuta, surmised that it was probably the Indian aloe Aquilaria malaccensis that is referred to, valued even today for its resin. This reminds me of the archaeological find by the Pontian River in Johor, of an old wooden boat, perhaps of a similar construct found along the Straits of Malacca, but fashioned without the use of nails and made from two different timber variants, Hopea and Shorea. These were glued together by ijok (palm sugar), while the dowels were made from the resistant Medang (Lauraceae family). When carbon dated, the boat was discovered to have been from between 260-420 CE, making it the oldest shipwreck found on the peninsula. Such expertise in the use of wood specimens for construction highlights the rich botanical knowledge and an established heritage here.

A study by Universiti Sains Malaysia has observed a deforestation rate of 1.4% and an urbanisation rate of 3.3% annually in Penang. Trend forecasts predict a substantial shrinkage of forest area by 2039, with the implications of significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Happily, the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve status has included under its scheme the Penang Botanic Gardens and its green heritage, for the promotion of sustainable development practices and the protection of its biological diversity.

Streams, aquaducts, water terraces and small bridges are found throughout the Gardens. These form part of the landscape so adored by Curtis.

Professor Zulfigar Yasin

is a marine environmental scientist who is an Honourable Professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia and a visiting senior analyst at Penang Institute. His work now focuses on the sustainable development of the marine environment.