A recent guided walk at MacRitchie Reservoir Park brought to light my disturbing illiteracy with regards to native plants. Despite having spent hours chasing trails and netting scales in the hilly plantations of my middle youth, I failed to recognise the characteristic trifoliate leaves of Hevea braziliensis, the sap-filled trunk that immortalised H.N. Ridley and which brought a rubbery bounce to Malaysia’s post-war economy.
Even closer to the present time, a native monkey was chastised for flinging out synonyms without taxonomical care. Thanks to a friendly Otterman, we now recognise that Paraserianthes falcataria, the grand growing tree that sprouts with abandon in vacant plots and grassy hillocks (reaching a height of 17 m in 3 hasty years), takes nomenclatural precedence before the aliases Albizia falcata, Albizia falcataria and Albizia moluccana. I should add that fruit-loving primates ought to beware as well of the monkey pot tree (Lecythis ollaria), whose empty fruit are used to bait monkeys who would be unable to withdraw their heads after peeping in.
Allow me to rattle for a moment: of ash, beech, birch, cypress, elm, larch, maple, oak, pine, poplar, rowan, willow and yew. Though alien and half-a-world afar, these woody names occupy a permanent niche in my mind, having been sown by hours of Enid Blyton and her illustrious Victorian predecessors, who painted the English countryside in literary shades of vivid green and melancholy gray.
While pondering the way local landscapes and wandering woods are etched in the hearts of poets and pensmen in higher latitudes, I often wonder: how well do people on this island know their birds and the bees? Or more precisely, their birds and the trees. Besides the angsana, banyan, casuarina, flame-of-the-forest, rain tree, sea almond and perhaps a few species of frugivorous interest, I wager that for most people who enjoy the shade and suffer the dry litter of leafy giants, a tree is a tree is a tree. Which is a bit of a shame, considering the immense research and horticultural effort undertaken by the National Parks Board in selecting suitable wayside companions to shelter sun-shy naked apes. Just this week, the fresh bout of rain has triggered a mass bloom of trumpet trees (Tabebuia rosea), many of which transformed into giant bouquets of pink and white. Yet this short-lived display of floral exuberance earns no applause, much less acknowledgement, from passer-bys whose care-worn eyes are set on the next footstep. In other unmarked corners, fledgling bo trees (Ficus religiosa) cling to life on barren edges, heirs to the throne of enlightenment found beneath its bowed limbs. The foreign workers who mow our lawns know a thing or two: Vishnu’s cradle suffers no damage from cutting tools or trampling boots.
I am told that in earlier decades, epiphytes such as bird’s nest ferns (Asplenium nidus) were unwanted free riders on urban trees, as they were mistakenly seen as botanical penthouses for blood-sucking pests and their aquatic brood. This stance is now happily reversed (young strangler figs are an exception though; a sapling which I had hoped would engulf a rain tree by my block was quickly removed) and there is even a deliberate effort to place noteworthy natives such as pigeon orchids (Dendrobium crumenatum) and staghorn ferns (Platycerium coronarium) on sidewalk trunks.
In contrast to the much-lauded policy of welcoming foreign transplants, I hear that replacements for exotic trees such as the South American rain tree are mulled. As a rule, budak is no fan of unnecessary imports, in particular the African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) and the arboreous vermin Acacia auriculiformes, but one can’t help but appreciate the generous shadow of Enterolobium saman’s sprawling crowns that help break up the visual regimentation of planned estates. Perhaps their substitutes could wait till the day when the current generation of trees can no longer bear the burden of their branches.
I thought aloud yesterday that blogging is a boon to ducks in danger of forgetting their old haunts and discarding their memories for want of recollection. Over the dimming visions of my buried youth tower trees of fading bark and fallen bough. Near my grandmother’s townhouse, a gargantuan strangler fig had sunk its roots through a derelict building, occupying an entire street corner lot. The site is now ‘developed’, but I still recall the fear of a duckling who would turn chicken at the sight of a floating forest of aerial roots fringing a chasm of twisted wood.
My grandmother’s house itself was once blessed with a dirt road and rich garden, now buried beneath a tide of tar. There was an ageing fir tree in what was once the overgrown yard beside the house, and in those untravelled times, the fragrant scent of freshly fallen needles failed to ignite my senses. Only much later, when this duck spent a spring week by an evergreen hill, did he rediscover the delight of dry coniferous carpets.
Our garden had a pair of fruitful mango trees, which I would climb to steal bird nests and tempt kerengga or red tree ants. These biting insects were also the unfortunate bête noir for my grandfather’s decision to fell the trees, thereby unblocking my view of the dreary road and exposing the garden’s nooks and crannies to the desiccating glare of the equatorial sun. Some day, I might return and plant a little orchard of my own.
Before the afternoon school session began, we would play amongst a grove of saga trees (Adenanthera pavonina) while awaiting the assembly bell. The scarlet seeds would be gathered as ammunition for projectile mischief, and in those days we were utterly clueless of their raw toxicity. Already present in old yearbook photographs from the 1960s, the trees remain to this day, ringing an uneven field of achievement by generations of old boys and cigar-chomping housemasters. Many other timbered landmarks, however, have gone the way of the Entwives, leaving gaps in history that are rudely occupied by concrete trolls or ghost circles void of all memory.
There is possibly no individual in Singapore better able to tell two leaves apart than Dr. Wee Yeow Chin, a retired botany professor who has written at least two highly recommendable volumes that will help you tell the difference between acacias and arecas, cannon-balls and candlenuts, teaks and tembusus. His magnum opus, Tropical Trees and Shrubs: A Selection for Urban Plantings (Suntree Publishing, 2003) is as comprehensive a guide to local flora as one could possibly wish. Cheaper skates can opt for his contribution to the BP/Singapore Science Centre nature series – A Guide to Wayside Trees of Singapore – which costs less than a pack of cigarettes. Just last week, Dr. Wee launched "Plants that Heal, Thrill and Kill", his latest volume that explores the biochemical secrets of herbs with the power to arouse and annihilate.
I mentioned birds earlier, and lest you doubt my mental cohesion, I should like to add that Dr. Wee is also a blogger whose ornithological observations can be read at http://besgroup.blogspot.com. Besides their association with nasty ailments, what do most people know about the winged archosaurs that haunt our skies? How many have noticed that two different myna species are competing beak and claw for the same spoils of human excess? Or the way black-naped orioles bop in flights between perches? Or the spiral glide that follows the collared dove’s steep ascent? Why do commuters seem so oblivious to the scattering flocks of cattle egrets that prowl the fields around Jurong East MRT? What difference would it make if these winged spirits were to vanish from the air, prey to primal fears of feathered threats? Those would be duck days indeed.