Ever heard of Bogor in Java, Indonesia?
We’re not surprised if you haven’t.
Pretty much the only reason travellers stop off in this city is to see the magnificent botanical gardens here, which are the oldest and most important botanical gardens in Indonesia.
The gardens have a few trees labelled here and there and a few information panels but on the whole, they're pretty difficult for a first-time visitor to decipher.
That's why we created this little guide to direct you to the most compelling features of the gardens and to help you understand things a little better. But first, let us give you a little bit of background information about Bogor, the urban setting for the botanical gardens.
Bogor is a city that falls within the massive Jabotadetabek, the greater Jakarta metropolitan region surrounding Jakarta, the capital city of Java.
Set against the volcanic backdrop of Mt. Salak, Bogor has a reputation for being the wettest place in Java.
Afternoon thunderstorms are almost an every-day affair here and in fact, the local people refer to Bogor as Kota Hujan, meaning ‘city of rain’. Of course, this is exactly the reason why it plays host to such a thriving and lush botanical gardens.
Key facts about Bogor:
Altitude: 290 m above sea level
Annual rainfall: 2,500mm +
Location: 60km south of Jakarta
No. of annual thunderstorms: 322
The expansive Bogor botanical gardens (Kebun Raya Bogor) are undoubtedly Bogor’s main and perhaps only draw for most travellers.
Operated by the Indonesian Institute Of Sciences (LIPI), the gardens cover an area of 87 hectares (210 acres) and are a veritable oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hectic Bogor metropolis.
The gardens feature expansive green lawns, lotus and lily ponds, gurgling streams, avenues of stately trees and other delights. There are 3,373 different species of plants, shrubs and trees planted here, originating from many different countries.
The gardens also feature the presidential palace complex (Istana Bogor) and the interesting Bogor Zoology Museum.
The Bogor botanical gardens were officially opened by the Dutch colonial government in 1817.
Prior to the opening, the German-born Dutch botanist, Professor Reinwardt had converted the extensive grounds of the presidential palace (Istana Bogor) into the new botanical gardens, through collaboration with two botanists from Kew Gardens.
In 1840, a Dutch botanist called Johannes Elias Teijsmann became curator of the gardens and spent the next 50 years developing them.
The gardens soon became an international research centre for various plants and crops of economic potential, which were collected from all over the Indonesian archipelago and beyond.
Plants like West African oil palm, cinchona (producer of the anti-malarial drug quinine), coffee, cocoa, rubber, tobacco, tea, soy and rice were cultivated in the gardens for research and experimentation.
The researchers were very interested in learning more about diseases that were a threat to their cash crops.
The gardens were briefly under the control of the Japanese during world war II and in 1949, the dutch finally acknowledged the sovereignty of Indonesia and the gardens were finally handed over to the Indonesian ministry of agriculture.
In 1962, the gardens became part of the national biological institute (LBN) of Indonesia, with the intensive scientific research benefiting agriculture and pharmaceutical industries.
In 2006, a bad storm hit the gardens hard, damaging a considerable number of mature trees and forcing the authorities to close the gardens for a week.
There is an entrance fee to the botanical gardens. Indonesians pay about 14,000 rupiah and for foreign tourists the fee is 25,000. Can the fee be avoided? Yes, quite easily in fact.
We don’t know all the loopholes but we do know that there is a very easily entered gap in the fence at the southwestern corner of the botanical gardens, very close to the Bogor zoology museum.
This is a quieter part of the gardens so if you’re careful, nobody will notice you sneaking in.
The gardens are broadly square in shape and cover an area of 87 hectares. The Ciliwung River runs through the park in two split channels and there are several bridges spanning the river channels.
The main entrance is found at the south end of the park and most of the garden facilities are found here as well as the ticket counter.
There are almost 14,000 living specimens in the park, comprised of 3,373 species, 1257 genera and 218 families, but they’re not all scattered haphazardly throughout the gardens.
Similar plants are often grouped together into smaller gardens and collections within the main gardens, these having a particular theme or focus. For example, you have the Mexican garden, bamboo collection, medicinal garden etc. There are also several specific points of interest within the park.
The gardens allegedly support over 50 varieties of birds and several species of bats. Some of the mature trees also support large colonies of flying foxes.
We spent 2 or 3 days exploring the gardens and by mid-afternoon we’d normally find ourselves either walking around in a pleasant cooling mist of fine rain or dashing for shelter as the thunderstorms rolled in.
We therefore advise you to go early in the morning to avoid getting drenched in the afternoon downpours.
The gardens are pretty extensive so you’ll probably want to know where to head to get the most out of your time here. Here are the 17 must-see highlights (in no particular order):
This scissors-shaped pond lies just south of the presidential palace. It’s a beautiful pond with water fountains and displays of lotus flowers and water lilies.
The presidential palace (Istana Bogor) can be seen from here although visits must be pre-arranged in large tour groups of 30+ individuals. The building contains Soekarno’s (the first president of Indonesia) huge art collection.
A herd of spotted deer (axis axis) can sometimes be spotted here, roaming around the palace grounds. The 600+ deer that roam the grounds today are the descendants of 6 original animals that were introduced to the gardens by the British aristocracy for their favourite pastime: hunting.
Not far from here you may stumble across the oldest tree in the botanical gardens. It's a lychee tree (litchi chinensis), which originated from southern China and was planted in 1823. Have you tried lychee fruits? They're delicious. You can buy them everywhere in India.
There is also an interesting sculpture mounted on a tall pedestal near the pond. It shows a small man standing in a precarious position, balanced on the forefinger and thumb of a giant hand. The man's head is tilted back and he is looking up to the heavens.
The sculpture is one of several replicas of the famous 'hand of God' sculpture, originally made by a Swedish sculptor called Carl Milles, who died in 1955.
Following his death, the home of Milles and his wife in Stockholm was converted into an art museum and sculpture park called "Millesgarden'' and the original sculpture is on display here.
The meaning of the statue? It apparantly represented Milles' philosophy of life; that man can best achieve his goals by placing himself in the hand of God.
This area features a very interesting collection of cactuses, agaves, yuccas and other succulent plants. The name of the garden is a bit of misnomer because not all the species here originate from Mexico.
Desert plants like these tend to have fleshy or waxy leaves and plants like cacti have spines instead of leaves. All these features are special adaptations to minimize water loss in the hot, dry desert climate. Some plants in arid conditions also have deep root systems to reach water that’s far below the surface.
Some of the notable species we encountered here were the Peruvian apple cactus (cereus repandus), prickly pear cactus (opuntia ficus-indica), the Spanish dagger (yucca gloriosa) and a poisonous spurge called euphorbia lactea.
The flowers of the prickly pear cactus are quite beautiful when fully blooming but this one below was unopened. The fruits of the plant are also edible although you must take great care to peel away the outer layer or else you could end up with a mouth full of cactus spines.
The spanish dagger (yucca gloriosa), also known as the spanish bayonet is another interesting species to be found in the Mexican garden.
The name of the plant probably derives from the sharply pointed leaves which resemble daggers or bayonets.
The plant is native to the dry sand dunes of the southeastern coast of North America but it has spread to several other countries worldwide.
What we loved most about it were the beautiful clusters of creamy bell-shaped flowers.
Near the grand garden café in Astrid park, just after crossing over the river, you’ll find a small pond containing these incredibly large floating lily pads. These are Amazonian water lilies (Victoria amazonica), native to the Amazon backwaters.
Victoria amazonica actually has the largest lily pads on Earth with floating pads that can reach 3m in diameter! The plant also has beautiful and huge flowers that can be 40cm in diameter. The flowers are white in colour on the first day of blooming and turn to pink afterwards.
Can the lily pads of this plant support the weight of human adult? Perhaps. They are said to be capable of supporting a weight of up to 45kg (100lbs) if the weight is evenly distributed. This is largely thanks to the upturned edges of the pads, which increase their buoyancy considerably.
It must also be remembered that the lily pads are only the floating leaves of the plant that everybody sees. The cable-like stems are also quite impressive, extending for 7-8 metres underwater and rooting in the mud at the bottom!
A large portion of this little area is devoted exclusively to aquatic plants. We found papyrus (cyperus papyrus), water lilies (nymphaea spp.), water lettuce (pistia stratiotes), water hyacinth (eichhornia crassipes) and several others plants here.
There’s also an observation deck overlooking the garden and some information panels to help you identify some of the water plants.
There are two huge pig canary (canarium decumanum) trees located near the river, to the east of the presidential palace.
The shallow-rooted trees can reach 60 metres in height and need huge buttress roots to support them.
In the jungles of Borneo and New Guinea where the tree originates from, the spaces between buttresses like these are often used as a safe place to make camp by hunter-gatherer tribes. The seeds of the tree are often used to make handicrafts like pendants and keyrings.
The orchid centre of the botanical gardens has a strong focus on wild orchids, with a collection of over 500 species from over 100 genera.
Most of the species have been collected from Indonesia’s forests and it’s possible to see the tiger orchid (grammatophyllum speciosum) here, which is the largest orchid species in the world. The orchids are at least protected here, unlike in Indonesia’s forests where deforestation is a big problem.
The most visually spectacular displays of orchids are in the orchid house, which has two wings, one for naturally occurring non-hybrid species and the other wing for hybrids. In between the two wings, there are some information panels discussing some of the orchid species and their plight in Indonesia.
The orchidarium is another separate area nearby, where the orchids are being bred for research purposes. This is a less visually impressive place but it’s not supposed to be. It shows a more realistic display of how the orchids grow in their natural habitats.
We didn’t get to see inside the orchid house unfortunately, as it was too late in the day when we arrived and it had already closed. We did however get to see the world’s largest orchid species in another part of the park.
One of the most impressive things in Bogor is the corpse flower of the titan arum plant (Amorphophallus titanum).
The plant is endemic to the rainforests of western Sumatra and it boasts the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. It's also the world's tallest flower, with the tallest ever recorded fully erect flower measuring in at 3.5 metres in height.
The massive underground tubers are almost equally impressive, weighing up to 120kg when mature.
The plant attracts flies, carrion beetles and other insects by emitting a powerful scent of rotting flesh that can be detected from 100 metres away.
The flies and beetles enter inside the plant where some of the pollen from the male flowers sticks to their bodies. Some time later, the same insects transfer the pollen to the female flowers of another plant elsewhere.
Something you have to be aware of with this plant is that the blossoming is a very rare and highly unpredictable event. It only occurs about once every 3 years at Bogor and when it does, the flower draws more than just flies and dung beetles, i.e thousands of tourists. There are actually 10 dormant tubers in the gardens but they each can lie dormant for several years.
To maximize your chances of seeing the flower, you should go in the rainy season, from october to march because that's when it normally flowers. Even then, the flowering event only lasts for 2 days so it's a really narrow window of opportunity!
When we explored the gardens, there was no sign of the titan arum flowers unfortunately.
The Rafflesia genus contains about 28 species of flowering plants and Indonesia hosts 17 species from this genus, with the others found in Malaysia and Borneo.
Rafflesia patma is the one you can see in Bogor and it was first discovered by a french botanist called Louis Auguste Deschamps in 1797.
What’s remarkable about the plant is that’s it’s entirely parasitic and has no visible leaves, roots or stem. It lives entirely off vines that belong to the tetrastigma genus (family: vitaceae).
The flower is the only part of the plant that’s visible outside the host and a tremendously impressive flower it is. The flowers of R.patma are usually about 60cm in diameter. Amazingly, the flowers in some rafflesia species can exceed 3 feet in diameter and weigh more than 10kg.
Like amorphophallus titanum, these are also sometimes referred to as ‘corpse flowers’ because they also emit a scent of rotting flesh to attract flies so they can transfer their pollen to other plants.
The flowering of rafflesia patma in the Bogor botanical gardens is not a common event. The first time it flowered here was in 2010, after the authorities had been trying to cultivate it for over 80 years. The ephemeral flowers only bloom for 3-4 days before the petals close up again.
This tree, also known as the tualang tree is a rainforest species that’s found in several southeast Asian countries. It’s known for being one of the tallest tree species in the world, with heights of 75-88 metres having been recorded.
The specimen in Bogor is located just east of the main entrance. It's pretty impressive, with its beautiful and intricate surface root system, designed to extract nutrients from the rich topsoil layer. In rainforests, only the top shallow layer of soil contains nutrients, so the trees are shallow-rooted to exploit this.
You’ll also notice the large buttresses, which exist to compensate for the shallow root system. These undoubtedly help to stabilize such a tall shallow-rooted tree and protect it being uprooted by strong winds.
Just nearby, there are two statues and a stone with some inscriptions. The statues were found in an old pond in Kotabatu, Ciapus, in the outskirts of Bogor. They are hindu statues and they depict Shiva, the hindu God of destruction and Nandi the bull, which is the vehicle of Shiva.
The statues hint at the existence of hinduism in Java long ago. The inscriptions on the rock are written in the old sundanese script but they were not carved by ancient people. The symbols supposedly translate to 'not far from here is a lake.'
It's believed that the collection was introduced into the gardens either by Dr. Friederich in the 19th century or by Professor Reinwardt, the original founder.
This place is not visually spectacular, but it’s very interesting to learn about the different medicinal plants and their uses. You’ll find the medicinal garden in the northeastern part of the park.
Many of the plants are well labeled and there are some information panels, which explain the wide variety of ailments the plants are used to combat.
The bamboo collection is found on in the western part of the gardens, near the presidential palace.
The highlight here is the stands of giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus), one of the largest species of the grass family and found throughout many countries in Southeast Asia. The species has a clumping habit so that multiple stems tend to arch skywards from the same point of origin.
The sheer size of this species is what makes it impressive. In mature specimens, the stems can exceed a foot in thickness and the stems can attain heights of 30-40 metres. The growth rates of this species in good conditions can be staggering, with 40+ cm of growth in a single day not unheard of.
Worldwide, the bamboo tribe consists of over 1,000 recognized species from over 90 genera. They are the fastest growing plants in the world with growth rates of up to 91cm (35 in) per day having been recorded.
Bogor is famous for it’s diverse palm tree collection, with over 288 species from 88 genera. The main palm collection is located in the western area of the park, not far from the bamboo collection.
We were particularly intrigued by the palms with trunks covered by deadly sharp spines or prickles like this specimen of oncosperma tigillarium in the picture on the left.
The spines are a very effective defense mechanism against predation by herbivores. Some palm trees shed their spines as they mature and become less appealing to herbivores but others retain the spines through their adult phases as well.
There are about 2,600 species of palm trees worldwide, from 181 genera and they're predominantly found in the tropics and sub-tropics. Palm trees belong to the arecaceae family.
They have traditionally been very important to mankind as sources of food, medicine, thatching and weaving materials. In modern times, they are widely used in landscaping for their ornamental value.
The fernery is an interesting exhibit, with a variety of different ferns on display. Walking through here transports you back to a prehistoric era, since ferns are among the oldest living plants on the planet.
Ferns reproduce by releasing spores and don’t possess flowers or seeds. As you walk through the collection, you’ll notice the structures known as ‘fiddleheads’ – young fern fronds that have yet to unfurl. These are eaten as a vegetable in many countries.
If you look on the underside of the fern fronds, you may see the (often round) yellow or brown structures called sori. The sori are each a cluster of smaller 'sporangia', which are the casings that hold the invididual spores.
Worldwide, there are about 8,550 true ferns in 223 genera and many of the species date back to over 360 million years ago (the devonian period).
These aren’t marked on the official map, but as you wander throughout the gardens, you may hear the screeching sounds of these fascinating flying mammals and if you remember to look up regularly, you may even see them flying around near the tree that they roost in.
We discovered a large colony while wandering aimlessly through the gardens, although not completely by chance; the giveaway was the loud screeching noises that led us to the colony.
Large flying foxes (pteropus vampyrus) are one of the largest species of bats in the world. Instead of echolocation, they use their eyes to navigate. The diet consists primarily on flowers, nectar and various types of fruit.
There have been records of flying fox colonies numbering 10,000 individuals although the colony we saw was much smaller than that. You can only imagine how noisy such a colony must be.
Unfortunately, flying foxes face many threats because of our man-made infrastructure. You’ll often see dead ones hanging from power lines where they’ve been electrocuted. Other threats are barbed wire fences and fruit netting, where they’ll often get snagged and it’s not uncommon for them to get killed by collisions with vehicles on the roads.
This long avenue in the eastern part of the gardens was laid out to commemorate Princess Astrid of Belgium’s visit in 1928. This was the avenue that the princess walked down during her visit to the gardens.
The avenue is about 200-300 metres in length and is divided into two lanes by a beautiful swathe of canna lilies. These are not true lilies however.
The canna genus contains 10 species and actually originates from the Americas. The plants are known for being one of the world’s richest starch sources.
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the garden, this is a very pleasant little park, with delightful water fountains and a flower bed that forms the image of a Garuda eagle.
The Garuda is the main part of the national emblem of Indonesia, with a heraldic shield on its chest and a scroll gripped by its legs.
The park was built to honour Mr. Sudjana Kassan, the first Indonesian person to be appointed curator of the gardens, after they had been in foreign hands for over 135 years.
The zoology museum is a welcome diversion if you get tired of looking at plants and would like to experience something a little different. The museum is located in the southwestern corner of the gardens and admission is free. You should be able to get in here even if you sneaked into the gardens.
The museum started as a research facility for pest insect control in 1894. It contains an impressive collection of stuffed birds and stuffed mammals in addition to displays of fish, shellfish, butterflies, turtles, tortoises, insects and other land and marine fauna.
In total, there are 10,000 insects and 2,000 species of other fauna from all over the Indonesian archipelago at the museum and the enormous blue whale skeleton on display here will surely impress you.
A final word
So is that all that the botanical gardens of Bogor have to offer? Of course not! These are just what we feel are the highlights of any visit.
The gardens are a huge place with more than 3,000 plant species after all. If you have time, other points of interest in the gardens include the red hanging bridge, the old dutch cemetery, the Lady Raffles memorial monument, the palm oil monument, the Teijsmann garden, the screwpine (pandanus) collection, the gogo vines and tons of other stuff!
If you're an avid botanist, you could easily spend weeks wandering around here in fascination at all the species that are on display. If you're not a botanist then just take our advice and try to make to all the highlights we listed... or just ignore our advice completely and get lost for a few hours in this Garden of Eden.
Do you have a favourite botanical gardens in Southeast Asia? Let us know in the comments section below.