Learning about plants in Singapore

In response to a query at Nature Singapore

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Learning About Plants, ver 1.0 (13 Dec 2004); ver 1.1 (06 Sep 2011)

Resources online

[link] "Flora etymology," National Parks Board, 2010. The meaning of plant names with sources provided for many terms.

[link] Flora Singapura by Tony O'Dempsey, 2010. Illustrations of the flora of Singapore through photographs and commentary, by species.

[link] The total vascular flora online. Plant Systematics Lab, 2010. Companion site to the checklist, ilustrations of species.

[link] "Intertidal and marine plants," by Ria Tan. Wildfacts Singapore, 2008.

[pdf] "A checklist of the total vascular plant flora of Singapore: native, naturalised and cultivated species," by K. Y. Chong, H. T. W. Tan & R. T. Corlett, 2009. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore, 273p. Alphabetical checklist by species, phyla/families and status. Includes extinct species.

[link] "The Plant Observatory," by Kwan, 2007. Photos of plants by scientific names.

[link] "Companion Guide to Wayside Trees of Malaya," by Joseph Lai, 2003. Photos of trees, listed alphabetically by genera.

[link] "A Guide to the Plants of Kent Ridge" by Brandon Seah, 2001. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore. Overview and individual species account, not ilustrated.

[pdf] "Introduction to Plant Life on Kent Ridge," by Brandon Seah, 05 Sep 2004.

[link] Kent Ridge plants and animals" by N. Sivasothi & SAJC Green Club, 2007. Flickr photo album of vegetative and reproductive aspects of the plants.



See Timothy Pwee's list at the end of this page (2004) and Tony O'Dempsey's forest plant book collection which has reviews. Recent book titles since the 2004 list below include

  • "The Natural Heritage of Singapore," by H. T.W. Tan, L.M. Chou, D. C.J. Yeo and P. K.L. Ng, 2010. 323p.
  • Trees of Our Garden City: A Guide to the Common Trees of Singapore." Tee Swee Ping (ed.), 2009. 2nd Edition: 381p.

Get the Singapore Science Centre guidebooks which are great value for money! The more than 40 titles include Wayside Trees, Wildflowers, Bukit Timah forest, Botanic Gardens Jungle, Ferns, the ecosystem titles, Growing Native Plants, Carnivorous Plants, Toxic Plants, Threatened Plants, and Figs.


Staring out with Wayside Trees

I was lucky - I started out late, when I was at the university. But I was lucky to be taught by Prof Wee Yeow Chin's - he had a series of first year introductory plants lectures. It was a startling eye-opener! Such courses or the time spent on them no longer exist so I am glad I was at the right place at what was then still the right time.

Besides my notes, I used Wee Yeow Chin's Singapore Science Centre Guide to Common Wayside Trees and also his title on Ferns and Fern Allies and eventually read "The City and the Forest: Plant Life in Urban Singapore," (1987) by Corlett & Wee.

I looked for obvious examples of plants listed in the guidebooks, ignoring the ambiguous-looking ones until I became more experienced later. Wayside trees and ferns provided an easy foundation as each bus or mrt ride becomes a field trip!

From a foundation of wayside trees, ferns and some secondary forest plants, I started learning about forest plants and about the relationships between plants, such as families. I used the guide to Bukit Timah and the copy of Botanic Gardens Jungle in the Science Library (it was then out of print). Ivan Polunin's "Plants and Flowers of Singapore" was invaluable for the glorious photos and the listing by habitats. [2010 reprint]

Later I also started using the guides for plants in Malaysia and Sabah - colourful pictures were and are still important to me! This later stretched to Southeast Asian titles.

There are many more local titles for forest, ornamental and wayside trees these days. One example is NParks' 1,001 garden plants in Singapore or Chua Ee Kiam's book, "Ours To Protect."


Learning by drawing

I had realised the note-taking we all did when starting out had helped tremendously. In my drawings (ugly as they were) I amplified features that I used to identify plants with; this was critical in recognising the plant again later whether by memory or by reference to the drawing. For some trees, I even wrote down the exact location so I could come back for a second look one day.

During mangrove courses, I usually ask participants to make drawings of Sea Hibiscus, a very common plant everyone thinks they recognise easily. When they made their first drawing, experienced guides too were surprised at the degree of detail they had completely missed, just as I had earlier myself!

Denise's logbook, August 2000.


Field Trips and Guided Walks

The Singapore Botanic Gardens, Fort Canning and many parks label their plants quite comprehensively so you can learn new plants and confirm suspicions. It is amazing how a seemingly obscure looking plant I see one day turns up everywhere subsequently!

Join guided walks at for example Botanic Gardens, Bukit Timah, and Lower Peirce; there are free guided walks almost every week, just see Wild Singapore. Yo can sign up for the weekly reminders in the sidebar.

The Nature Society (Singapore) has a plant group and conducts a few public events and some specialised sessions. You might consider joining them at some point if you find yourself strongly drawn to plants. Nothing like having the right company as you discover the fascinating world of plants all around us!

Originally posted as Learning about plants by N. Sivasothi, in response to a query on Nature Singapore, 13 December 2004.

Timothy Pwee added a list from 'books on his desk' on 14th December 2004

A. Firstly, the Science Centre guides are probably the best field identification booklets available - compact and inexpensive. Here is a list of relevant titles:

  1. Wee, Yeow Chin (1983). A Guide to the Ferns of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  2. Choo-Toh, Get Ten et al. (1985). A Guide to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  3. Foo, Tok Sheiw (1985). A Guide to Wildflowers of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
    [I find this one great for the small wayside flowers]
  4. Nathan, Anne & Wong Yit Chee (1987). A Guide to Fruits and Seeds. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  5. Tan, Leo W H & Peter K L Ng (1988). A Guide to Seashore Life. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre. [first part is good for identifying our local seagrasses]
  6. Wee, Yeow Chin (1989). A Guide to the Wayside Trees of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  7. Tan, Teck Koon (1990). A Guide to Tropical Fungi. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  8. Kok, Poh Tin, Hsuan Keng & P N Avadhani (1991). A Guide to Common Vegetables. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  9. Chou, Loke Ming (1992). A Guide to Medicinal Plants. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  10. Tan, Hugh T W & Hew Choy Sin (1993). A Guide to the Orchids of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
  11. Tan, Hugh T W (1997). A guide to the Carnivorous Plants of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.[IDs our local pitcher plants well]
  12. Ng, Peter K L & N Sivasothi (1999). A Guide to the Mangroves of Singapore I: The Ecosystem and Plant Diversity. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre. [good mangrove guide though I prefer the Thai one - sorry Siva!]
  13. 13. Piippo, Sinikka et al. (2002). A Guide to the Common Liverworts and Hornworts of Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.

Some of them have been revised and/or reprinted. Best place to shop for them is at Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City. Alternatively, the libraries usually have copies around. Don't look for library copies during project time though.

B. Because of the plant diversity, you have to get a collection of ID guides rather than just one book. Here are some that I found useful for specific families:

  1. Whitmore, T C (1973). Palms of Malaya. KL: Oxford University Press. [Whitemore is a must get]
  2. Comber, J B (1981). Wayside Orchids of Southeast Asia. Singapore: Heinemann Asia. [don't have the book myself so can't really tell how useful it is]
  3. Aksornkoae et al (1992). Plants in Mangroves. Bangkok, Thailand: Chalongrat Co. [my favourite mangrove plant ID book]
  4. Wee, Yeow Chin (1997). Ferns of the Tropics. Singapore: Times Editions. [ferns & Prof Wee... what else can I say?]
  5. K Larsen et al. (1999). Gingers of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications (Borneo). [another must get for the pictures if nothing else!]

C. Periplus has some nice guides though I personally don't find them useful:

  1. Warren, Williams (1996). Tropical Flowers of Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong: Periplus.
  2. Hutton, Wendy (1996). Tropical Vegetables of Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong: Periplus.
  3. Hutton, Wendy (1997). Tropical Herbs and Spices. Hong Kong: Periplus.
  4. Chan, Elisabeth (1998). Tropical Plants of Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong: Periplus.
  5. Banks, David P (1999). Tropical Orchids of Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong: Periplus.

D. Here are some more generic guides that are mostly suitable for identifying garden and wayside plants. Most are available in bookstores:

  1. Polunin, Ivan (1987). Plants and Flowers of Singapore. Singapore: Times Editions.
  2. Polunin, Ivan (1988). Plants and Flowers of Malaysia. Singapore: Times Editions.
  3. National Parks Board (1998). Skyrise Gardening in Highrise Homes. Singapore: National Parks Board.
  4. Engel, David H & Suchart Phummai (2000). A Field Guide to Tropical Plants in Asia. Singapore: Times Editions.
  5. Tee, Swee Ping & Wee Mei Lynn (eds) (2001). Trees of Our Garden City: A Guide to the Common Trees of Singapore. Singapore: National Parks Board.
  6. Boo, Chin Min et al (2003) 1001 Garden Plants in Singapore. Singapore: National Parks Board.
  7. Wee, Yeow Chin (2003). Tropical Trees and Shrubs: A Selection for Urban Planting. Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing.

E. For further reading and identification, there is a whole host of literature. A handful of the important ones which come to mind are:

  1. Burkill, I H (1935). A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (2 vols). London: Published on behalf of the governments of the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States, by the Crown Agents for the colonies. [expensive but really worth it - it is a bible of uses for just about every
    plant found here]
  2. Corner, E J H (1952). Wayside Trees of Malaya (2 vols). Singapore: Government Printing Office.
  3. Whitmore, T C (1990). An Introduction to Tropical Rain Forests. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Keng, Hsuan (1990). The Concise Flora of Singapore: Gymnosperms and Dicotyledons. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
  5. Keng, Hsuan (1998). The Concise Flora of Singapore: Vol 2, Monocotyledons. Singapore: Singapore University Press

This is a preliminary list based on what I or the library has. Anyone want to add any other titles?