The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may have given it a miss when they were last in town, instead visiting the National Orchid Garden - home to the Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, a white orchid created in honour of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

But also within the grounds of the 153-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), lies the relatively new Healing Garden - a tranquil retreat that showcases some 500 varieties of plants with medicinal properties.

"It's probably the most important thing plants have been used for since the beginning of time - to help man get over his illnesses and diseases and physical wounds," says SBG director Nigel Taylor.

"So plants with healing properties have always been popular and here in the Healing Garden we have some 500 that are regularly used in Southeast Asia," he says.

The garden is laid out in the shape of a crouching human body and covers just about every ailment - from head to toe.

From problems with your muscles, skin or nerves, a remedy can probably be found here - and possibly even in your own backyard.

The Areca catechu, commonly known as Betel Nut, is widely used across the region as an appetiser and a digestive. Its leaf paste is used to soothe fever, its young leaves used to treat coughs and its bark is used to treat swelling and flatulence.

Another common plant with beneficial compounds is the Catharanthus roseus, or Madascagar Periwinkle.

"The Madascagar Periwinkle (is) a plant that certainly has very good proven medicinal properties but it's actually a fantastic garden plant," Taylor says.

"You can have it as a bedding plant. It will flower most of the year, give colour. It's a plant you can have in a relatively small garden."

The Madascagar Periwinkle is traditionally used to treat diabetes and hypertension. In modern medicine, chemicals extracted from the plant are used to treat breast and lung cancer, as well as Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Also featured are plants native to Australia, including those from the Eucalyptus family and the Myrtaceae, or Myrtle, family from which tea tree oil is extracted.

"(Tea tree oil is) very familiar with most people," says Taylor.

"If you have children of school-age, they often come home (with nits) and tea tree oil is the best-known preventive medicine for getting rid of nits. They hate the smell of it and they very soon leave if you put the oil on your hair."

Tea tree oil was first used by Aborigines to relieve pain and treat cut and wounds. Its scientific discovery came about in the 1920s when Sydney chemist Arthur Penfold reported on the oil's medicinal benefits.

While the purpose of the Healing Garden is to showcase and educate the public on the healing properties of commonly-found plants, Taylor warns that it is not intended to be prescriptive and visitors should refrain from swiping plants to harvest at home.

For most part, incidences of theft are low - with one notable exception. The Labisia pumila, known locally as Kacip Fatimah, keeps disappearing. It may have something to do with the fact that the small, woody and leafy plant - so rare it had to be collected from the wild in Malaysia - is an aphrodisiac for women.

Taylor points out a near-empty bed of Kacip Fatimah, where a single, lonely plant sits.

Not too far away lies its male equivalent, the Eurycoma longifolia, or Tongkat Ali, which, as well as enhancing sexual functionality, is also used to treat mouth ulcers, fever, jaundice and dysentery.

For some reason, it is significantly less depleted than the Kacip Fatimah.

While no one has been known to fall ill after consuming greenary from the Healing Garden since its opening last October, Taylor sounds a word of caution when it comes to eating unfamiliar plants.

"There are a few plants that are so poisonous even ingesting a small amount would do you harm. You have to know your plants and if you're going to one of these new, fashionable restaurants where they serve unusual plants, you have to trust that the chef knows what he's harvesting.

"Many humans in the discovery of medicinal plants died through experimenting with them. We don't want that to happen today."

If you absolutely must eat something, the SBG boasts eight dining outlets in the vicinity, including the acclaimed Au Jardin restaurant.

For everyone else happy to simply look and learn, the Healing Garden covers 2.5 hectares, more than enough to make any amateur gardener - or hypochondriac - turn green with envy.

IF YOU GO:

The Healing Garden is located in the Singapore Botanic Gardens at 1 Cluny Road. It is open from 5am to 7.30pm Tuesday to Sunday and admission is free. It is closed on Mondays (except when it falls on a public holiday). Public buses and trains from the city centre stop about 15 minutes walk from the Healing Garden.

GROWING THE IDEA


  • The Singapore Botanic Gardens originally wanted to have a display of ethnobotany, but it didn't have the means to do that and as a substitute, decided on a Healing Garden.

  • The hardest plants to source were those that were held privately and passed down from person to person.

  • Mass-produced plants for food tend to have their strong flavours bred out of them, but it is often the flavours that have curative properties.

  • Dogs are allowed in the SBG but are banned from the Healing Garden due to concerns its plants may be damaged by pooches relieving themselves.

The West Australian

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