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Discover Singapore’s (Unofficial) National Tree: The Tembusu

Singapore, a vibrant city-state nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia, is not just a global financial hub but also a haven of rich biodiversity. Amidst the towering skyscrapers and bustling streets lies the Tembusu, a majestic hardwood tree that stands as a testament to the nation’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage.

This tree, unofficially regarded as the national tree of Singapore, captures the essence of resilience and beauty, embodying the spirit of the country itself. In this article, we delve deep into the world of the Tembusu, exploring its characteristics, significance, and the unique role it plays in Singapore’s lush landscapes.

Brace yourself, as you are about to uncover the captivating story of a tree that has witnessed the transformation of Singapore through the centuries, including a surprising connection to the nation’s currency!

Discover The Tembusu, (Unofficial) National Tree of Singapore

The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans or Cyrtophyllum fragrans) stands tall and proud, with its robust structure and distinctive appearance making it a sight to behold. Classified under the family Gentianaceae, this evergreen tree is a native gem of Singapore and parts of tropical Asia, known for its resilience and longevity.

The Tembusu can reach impressive heights of up to 131 feet (40 meters), with a trunk diameter that can extend beyond 3 feet (1 meter). Its bark is deeply fissured, sporting a dark brown hue that adds to its stately appearance. The tree’s branches are remarkable, stretching out wide with low-lying limbs that sweep upwards at the ends, creating a dramatic visual effect.

The leaves of the Tembusu are simple and opposite, with a glossy, dark green color that remains vibrant throughout the year. They are oblong in shape and can grow up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) in length.

The tree blooms twice a year, producing clusters of creamy white flowers between May and June, and again from October to November. These flowers open at sunset and emit a strong, enchanting fragrance that fills the air during the evening.

The Tembusu’s bark is uniquely ridged, creating a textured surface that adds to its overall grandeur. Its shape is characterized by an upright trunk with wide-spreading branches, forming a canopy that provides ample shade and adds to the tree’s allure.

Where Does The Tembusu Grow?

The Tembusu is well-adapted to the tropical climate of Singapore, thriving in the country’s warm and humid conditions. It is commonly found in a variety of habitats, ranging from secondary forests and coastal areas to urban parks and gardens.

In terms of its geographical range, the Tembusu is native to Southeast Asia and parts of tropical Asia. It has a preference for well-drained soils, though it exhibits a remarkable ability to adapt to different soil types, including clayey and poorly drained soils.

This adaptability is a testament to the tree’s resilience, making it a favorite for planting in urban environments where soil conditions can be less than ideal.

In Singapore, the Tembusu has been identified as a suitable species for planting in parks and open spaces, where its expansive canopy provides a cool and shady refuge for both residents and wildlife. The tree’s presence in these public spaces has made it an integral part of the community, fostering connections between nature and city living.

Singapore Tembusu (Botanic Gardens)
Singapore’s famous Tembusu in the Botanic Gardens

The Tembusu in the Ecosystem

The Tembusu plays a pivotal role in its ecosystem, contributing to biodiversity and offering various benefits to both flora and fauna. Its extensive branches and lush foliage provide habitat and shelter for numerous bird species, insects, and small mammals, fostering a vibrant web of life.

Fauna: Birds such as the Yellow-vented Bulbul and various species of sunbirds are commonly seen perching on the branches of the Tembusu, while butterflies and bees are attracted to its fragrant flowers. The tree’s fruits also serve as a food source for various animals, ensuring their survival and maintaining ecological balance.

Flora and Environment: Besides its role in supporting wildlife, the Tembusu is invaluable for its environmental contributions. Its widespread roots help to stabilize soil, preventing erosion, especially in areas with loose or sandy soil.

The tree’s canopy offers shade, reducing ground temperature and creating a cooler microclimate, which is particularly beneficial in urban settings where concrete and asphalt can contribute to the heat island effect.

Symbiotic Relationships: The Tembusu is involved in symbiotic relationships with various organisms, including mycorrhizal fungi that form associations with its roots. These fungi enhance the tree’s ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, boosting its growth and vitality.

Why and When Did The Tembusu Become The Unofficial National Tree of Singapore?

While the Tembusu is not officially designated as the national tree of Singapore, it has certainly earned a place in the hearts of Singaporeans and is regarded as an unofficial national symbol. Its image graces the back of the Singapore five-dollar note, a testament to its significance and prominence in the country’s cultural and historical landscape.

Symbolism: The Tembusu is cherished for its resilience, strength, and longevity, qualities that mirror Singapore’s journey and aspirations. It stands as a metaphor for the nation’s desire to foster a harmonious balance between progress and nature, embodying the vision of transforming Singapore into a “garden city.”

Historical and Cultural Significance: The tree has been a silent witness to Singapore’s transformation over the centuries, providing shade and shelter to generations of residents. Its low-lying branches invite passersby to rest and reflect, fostering a sense of community and connection to nature.

Controversies and Debates: While the Tembusu is widely celebrated, the designation of a national tree is not without its complexities. Debates have arisen over the years regarding the criteria for selecting a national symbol, with some arguing for the inclusion of other native species that also hold ecological and cultural importance.

The Tembusu in Memory of Lee Kuan Yew: The Tembusu holds a special place in Singapore’s history, being a favorite tree of the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. In 2015, a Tembusu was planted in his memory at Duxton Plain Park, ensuring that his legacy continues to inspire and shade future generations.

In sum, the Tembusu’s unofficial status as Singapore’s national tree is a reflection of its enduring presence, ecological value, and the deep connections it fosters among the people of Singapore and their natural heritage. Its story is intertwined with the nation’s journey, standing tall as a symbol of resilience, beauty, and the harmonious coexistence of nature and urban life.

Singapore Tembusu 5 dollars
The 5 Dollar note featuring the Botanic Gardens’ Tembusu

Where is The Tembusu Featured in Singapore?

The Tembusu has a significant presence in Singapore, not just in its parks and natural spaces, but also in its cultural and monetary symbols.

On Bank Notes: The most prominent appearance of the Tembusu is on the Singapore five-dollar note in the Portrait series, where a specific, iconic Tembusu tree from the Singapore Botanic Gardens is featured.

This tree, with its famous long, low branch, is over 150 years old, making it a living witness to Singapore’s history and transformation. The inclusion of the Tembusu on the currency symbolizes Singapore’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage amidst urban development.

Heritage Trees: Several Tembusu trees in Singapore have been designated as Heritage Trees, a status that recognizes their biological, cultural, and historical significance. The National Parks Board (NParks) has taken steps to conserve these trees, ensuring that they continue to thrive and serve as a link to Singapore’s natural heritage.

Names of The Tembusu

Scientific Name: The Tembusu is scientifically known as Fagraea fragrans, a name that highlights its sweet-smelling or fragrant flowers.

Common Names: Besides Tembusu, the tree is also commonly referred to as the “Fragrant Fagraea” in English, owing to its aromatic flowers.

Synonyms: In terms of scientific classification, the Tembusu has also been referred to by synonyms such as Cyrtophyllum fragrans and Roxburghia fragrans.

Regional Variations: In different parts of Southeast Asia where the Tembusu is found, it may go by different local names. However, ‘Tembusu’ is a widely recognized name for the tree across the region.

Interesting Facts About The Tembusu

  1. Fragrance After Sunset: The Tembusu’s flowers open at sunset and release a strong fragrance in the evening, creating a unique and enchanting sensory experience for those nearby.
  2. Longevity and Resilience: Some Tembusu trees in Singapore are estimated to be over 200 years old, showcasing the tree’s incredible longevity and resilience, even in urban settings.
  3. Symbolism in Political Discourse: In the 1990s, the Tembusu was used metaphorically in political discourse in Singapore. The country’s leaders were likened to the strong and tall Tembusu tree, while the smaller canopy represented the space provided for civil society to grow.
  4. Use in Traditional Medicine: The bark, leaves, and twigs of the Tembusu have been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments including fever and dysentery, showcasing the tree’s utility beyond its aesthetic and ecological value.
  5. Involvement in Conservation Efforts: The Tembusu’s status as a Heritage Tree and its presence on Singapore’s currency highlight the tree’s role in conservation and environmental awareness efforts within the country.
Singapore Tembusu foliage

Other Beautiful Trees Found in Singapore

  • Rain Tree (Samanea saman): Recognizable by its umbrella-shaped canopy, the Rain Tree is a common sight in Singapore, though not native. It offers ample shade and is known for its small pinkish flowers.
  • Banyan Tree (Ficus benghalensis): This tree has a complex root system and provides a unique structure in the landscape. The Banyan Tree is significant in various cultural practices and beliefs.
  • Pulai (Alstonia angustiloba): Known for its straight trunk and white, fragrant flowers, the Pulai is often used in reforestation efforts and has medicinal properties.
  • Common Pulai (Alstonia scholaris): Also known as the Blackboard Tree, this species is used for timber and has a milky latex that has been used in traditional medicine.
  • Chengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii): This tree produces one of the most durable and highly sought-after hardwoods in Southeast Asia, known for its resistance to decay and termites.

What Is The National Flower of Singapore?

The national flower of Singapore is the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, also known as Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim. It was chosen as the national flower in 1981, symbolizing the country’s unique blend of cultures, vitality, and resilience.

The flower is a hybrid between Vanda teres and Vanda hookeriana, and it stands out with its vibrant purple-pink petals. It blooms throughout the year, adding to its appeal as a national symbol. The Vanda Miss Joaquim was chosen for its vibrant colors, hardiness, and resilience, qualities that reflect the spirit of Singapore.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the lifespan of a Tembusu tree?

The Tembusu tree is known for its longevity, with some individuals living for over 200 years.

How tall can a Tembusu tree grow?

A mature Tembusu tree can reach heights of up to 40 meters (131 feet), with a broad, spreading canopy that provides ample shade.

Is the Tembusu tree found only in Singapore?

While the Tembusu is native to Singapore, it is also found in other parts of Southeast Asia and tropical Asia.

Why is the Tembusu tree important in Singapore?

The Tembusu tree holds cultural, historical, and ecological significance in Singapore. It is recognized as a Heritage Tree, has medicinal properties, and symbolizes strength, resilience, and the nation’s commitment to being a “garden city.”

How is the Tembusu tree used in traditional medicine?

The bark, leaves, and twigs of the Tembusu can be made into a decoction to treat illnesses such as fever and dysentery.

What does the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid symbolize?

The Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, Singapore’s national flower, symbolizes the country’s unique blend of cultures, vitality, and resilience. Its vibrant colors and year-round blooming nature reflect the spirit and dynamism of Singapore.

Other National Symbols of Singapore

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