Legacy of a former Hainan Village—A Peek into the Ethnobotanical Plants of Thomson Nature Park

by BES Drongos

Thomson Nature Park is one of the latest additions to the five buffer parks around the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Being a former Hainan village back in the 1930s, it harbors not only rich heritage but also many plant species that have ethnobotanical uses in food, medicine and culture.

Legacy of a former Hainan Village

Set against luscious vegetation, Thomson Nature Park was once the home to a bustling Hainanese village in the 1930s through 1980s with bountiful fruit trees consisting of rambutans, durians, jackfruit and even the occasional avocados providing food sources to the villagers.  By the 1960s, the village grew to a harmonious community of 500 multiracial residents from all walks of life. To date, remnants of old wells, toilets and now-defunct street signs remind us of a slice of the past. However, that is not all that remains! A living culture beholds you as we take a peer into the diverse and fascinating uses of plants that can be found right here at Thomson Nature Park!

Blooming flowers of <em>Durio zibethinus</em> L. (durian), 2021 (Source: Samuel Lee)
Blooming flowers of Durio zibethinus L. (durian), 2021 (Source: Samuel Lee)
Fruits of <em>Durio zibethinus</em> L. (durian), 2014 (Source: Christian Advs Sltg/ Wikipedia Commons)
Fruits of Durio zibethinus L. (durian), 2014 (Source: Christian Advs Sltg/ Wikipedia Commons)

Perhaps one of the most well-known and beloved fruits in Singapore, is none other than the King of fruits—Durian. Other than being found in local fruit stalls by the roadside, Thomson Nature Park is home to plenty of durian trees! The (in)famous aroma of the fruit is not only appealing to humans, but also to bats, bees and birds, who are important pollinators of durian flowers. However, the magic is not all in its fruits! Did you know that uncooked durian seeds can be toxic when swallowed and injested raw due to its cyclopropane fatty? Yet, it transforms into a delicious dish when boiled, fried or roasted! The Malays traditionally use a decoction of its roots for lingering fever and water from the infused durian leaves in a bath to treat jaundice.

Legacy of a former Hainan Village

Fruits of Artocarpus heterophyllus (jackfruit), 2015 (Source: Augustus Binu/ Wikipedia Commons)

Though it lacks the title of being the King of fruits like the durian, jackfruits bow to no one as it ranks the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. Did you know that one jackfruit can weigh up to 50kg? Other than its hefty weight, jackfruits are celebrated for its succulent and juicy texture. It is no wonder that jackfruits are often used as a meat substitute! The plant is also known to many medicinal uses; from the roots that are used to treat fever and stomach aches, and to the sap that treat ulcers.

Legacy of a former Hainan Village

Fruits and flowers of Terminalia catappa L. (sea almond), 2014 (Source: galhamsphire/ Flickr)

The sea almond takes its common name from being a tree that is commonly found in coastal areas and mangroves while having the kernel of the fruits smelling like almonds. Its leaves are often found in unusual places like…an aquarium! The leaves of the sea almond releases tannic and humic acid, which are chemicals with antibacterial effects. It can help to keep fishes healthy by keeping pathogens that infects fishes at bay. In addition, the acid compounds found in the leaves can reduce the pH values of the water when broked down and turn the water mulky brown, hence simulating the natural environment of some fish species (e.g. betta ‘fighting’ fishes).

Legacy of a former Hainan Village

Flower of Etlingera elatior (torch ginger), 2021 (Source: Samuel Lee)

The Torch Ginger, with its beautiful blush pink radiance and bold scale-like inflorescence, is not only stunning on the eye but also delectable on the palate. The immature flower buds of the torch ginger has a unique fragrance and can be found in our local dishes such as rojak and laksa!

Leaves of <em>Piper sarmentosum</em> (wild pepper), 2021 (Source: Wei Yang)
Leaves of Piper sarmentosum (wild pepper), 2021 (Source: Wei Yang)
Fruits of <em>Piper sarmentosum</em> (wild pepper), 2014 (Source: Christian Advs Sltg/ Wikipedia Commons)
Fruits of Piper sarmentosum (wild pepper), 2014 (Source: Christian Advs Sltg/ Wikipedia Commons)

Native to Singapore, the leaves, stem and flowers of the Piper sarmentosum (wild pepper) plant are all edible! In the northern parts of Malaysia, leaves are added into a herb and rice dish called Nasi Ulam or Nasi Kerabu. The young leaves and shoots can even be dipped in sambal chilli and eaten raw! Apart from being components to delicious dishes, the plant is believed to also possess medicinal properties. It is known that the leaves when boiled and consumed treat coughs and flu. The Chinese believe that its roots when crushed with salt are used to relieve toothache.

<em>Cinnamomum iners</em> (wild cinnamon tree), 2021 (Source: Samuel Lee)
Cinnamomum iners (wild cinnamon tree), 2021 (Source: Samuel Lee)
Close up of leaves of <em>Cinnamomum iners</em> (wild cinnamon tree), 2021 (Source: Wei Yang)
Close up of leaves of Cinnamomum iners (wild cinnamon tree), 2021 (Source: Wei Yang)

What do gingerbreads, mulled wine and apple pies have in common? Cinnamon of course! Singapore has its version of cinnamon, though it is not to be confused with consumable cinnamon. The bark from the wild cinnamon tree only produces a light, cinnamon-like fragrance which cannot be compared to spice-grade cinnamon. Did you know that the oil distilled from the bark and the leaves can be used for making incense sticks?

Now that you are imbued with knowledge on the fascinating potential uses of plants that reside within Thomson Nature Park, please do note that most of the medical claims researched are yet to be scientifically proven. To best keep yourself safe, please refrain from consuming any plant parts that are out of the ordinary. Did you know that foraging of plants are strictly not allowed in a Nature park? So let’s do our best to love and care for the plants and ecosystem around us!

BES Drongos

We are a group of student volunteer guides from NUS Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES). BES Drongos started conducting free guided tours in Macritchie Reservoir in 2014 to raise awareness about the rich biodiversity within our nature reserves. We have since expanded our tours to nature parks and mangroves to bring the public's attention to the valuable flora and fauna that we have in our city.

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