In conversation with Veera Sekaran

The Plant Whisperer

By 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will be living in cities. Climate change, shortages of food and water, and the destruction of the environment will become increasingly important issues for humankind, even – and indeed specifically – in rapidly growing urban centers. How can life be made healthier and more attractive in these conurbations? The botanist Veera Sekaran has devoted his "Greenology" workshop to finding solutions for these problems. Singapore is his test laboratory. Before launching his own company, Veera was the Head of Horticulture at Changi Airport and held executive positions at Singapore Zoo and the country's National Parks authority. He has been the architect of many of the famous living walls, the green skins that clothe tower blocks in Singapore. With his degree in Botany, the 54-year-old can comfortably tell you the Latin names of 3,000 plants. But he isn't just a scientist; he's a philosopher and visionary as well.

Here in Singapore people refer to you as the "plant whisperer." How did that come about?
While teaching at the university, I assigned a certain task to students who had no previous contact with horticulture: write a poem about a plant that once played a significant role in your life. At first they were unsure how to proceed. But then, slowly but surely, they all began showing up with their texts. Some couldn't hold back the tears as they read them out. I remember a young Chinese woman who was sobbing as she described a tree in the courtyard at her home. It had seen her entire family grow up: she herself, her parents and even her grandparents who were already in their graves. The woman had suddenly realized that the tree had been a constant companion to the family’s history – a witness to the changing generations. At the end of the course, the students presented me with a T-shirt bearing the words "The Plant Whisperer" – as a token of gratitude because I had taught them the value of plants and, in doing so, enriched their lives in some way.

You create vertical greenery or living walls. But your motive isn't solely aesthetic, is it?
When I first started to create the green walls, it was due to the lack of space and specific circumstances in Singapore. There wasn't enough light for trees to grow between the high-rises, and many plants withered and died. So we took up a French idea – "vertical gardens" – and adapted it for tropical climates, by adding new ideas and new technologies. I saw that as the solution, a way of reintroducing plants and all of the benefits they bring to the cities. The plants keep the temperature down, attract dust, improve air quality and reduce noise levels. And, of course, they exert a positive influence on people’s state of mind.

You run a charitable project in which people with disabilities and dementia work with plants. Can you tell us about your experiences?
I've seen lots of retirement homes and often find it depressing to see the residents lying in their beds, trapped inside their four walls, simply waiting to die. But if you take them outside into nature, let them burrow around in the soil and enjoy the smells of repotting and replanting, that brings back memories and soon has them smiling again. My autistic nephew made huge strides in his development when he spent four weeks on a training course with me. All of a sudden he was responsible for something that was alive, a plant. And that was evidently important to him.

Veera Sekaran established Greenology in 2008. Since then his company has created well over 15,000 square meters of “living walls” in Singapore.

Green walls are a signature trait of Singapore’s architecture: along the pedestrian path in Mediapolis, the main quarter for media and communications industry companies.
At a residence on Belmont Road

And young Singaporeans? Is it easy to interest them in horticulture?
You know, people in Asia tend to look down on work where you get your hands dirty. Manual labor of every type and jobs where you are handling soil. Parents often discourage their children from engaging in these activities. For them there is no difference between horticulture and agriculture. So when we launched Greenology we reinvented ourselves as urban greening specialists. Nowadays we need help from lots of electricians, mechanics and engineers – people with technical expertise, not just appreciation knowledge of plants. Today people are proud to tell their parents they have a job in this field.

That doesn't sound easy. Could non-professionals maintain an indoor green wall in their homes as well?
Sure, that's possible. Our systems are sophisticated and ready to use. Switch them on and they work. People don't have to keep replacing our plants; they won’t wilt and die within months. We want to create something that will last and thrive. These plants are living organisms. I have a lawyer friend who is always under pressure. Every evening he looks forward to picking and cutting the plants on his green wall. There's no better antidote to stress, he says.

When doctors had given up hope, you cured yourself of a rare nervous disorder through your work with plants. How did you manage that?
I can't explain it, but it had something to do with my life’s path and my bond with nature. That kept me going and gave me the momentum I needed to enjoy life and survive. That instinct is so strong in plants: they will do anything, whatever the challenges, to survive. People should try and emulate them. We are mobile creatures, we can avoid adversity. But plants will do everything within their power, they will fight to survive. Living organisms do this instinctively. If we abandon this instinct, humankind will die out. This, in my view, was the conviction that kept me going when my prospects looked dim.

You are always inventing new systems. What's your vision for Singapore and the rest of the world?
I'm looking forward to the day when I can create a sustainable habitat or ecosystem, one that is controlled remotely and in which everything communicates with everything else. We're working hard to achieve that. I'd like to create a habitat with plants everywhere that have a positive impact on air quality living conditions and the people’s state of mind. My idea would be for every balcony, every home, to have a green wall. That might be a small step for individuals, but it would make a huge difference overall. In this way everyone can make a contribution to the environment and transform our world into a better place.

TV journalist Susanne Perras, born in 1963, lives with her family in Southeast Asia.

Skylight in the building on Duxton Road
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