In spite of its location at the heart of the city, the Istana domain is a green lung amid the arteries of metropolitan bustle. Standing on what used to be Charles Robert Prinsep’s nutmeg plantation, the estate is a treasure trove of flora and fauna. Since 1960, the Istana grounds have been open to the public a few days every year so that Singaporeans and visitors could also enjoy the sprawling parkland.
Overall management of the extensive grounds is the responsibility of the Senior Curator from National Parks. He and his team of curators and gardeners not only maintain the grounds, but also step in whenever simple landscaping works are needed for functions held at the Istana.
The Swan Pond
The Swan Pond is the largest among the four ponds in the Istana grounds. So called because of the swans which inhabited it in the 1970s, it lies at two levels with an island in the midst of the main body.
The vicinity houses an interesting variety of plant life, including the Foxtail Palm, the Australian Ivy Palm, the Alstonia, the Rubber Tree and the Scented Coconut. In the evenings, swifts skim the water, which is home to Grass Carp, Koi, waterhens and turtles.
This deeply wooded area behind the Swan Pond is a reminder of the jungle that once stood here. Grand old Tembusu, some more than a century old and probably the last survivors of the jungle, can still be found here. The shorter-lived Saraca and Jelutong here were planted as seedlings.
The Centre Gate
Rain Trees lining both sides of Edinburgh Road shade the half-kilometre walk from the Main Gate to the Centre Gate. The intricate cast iron Centre Gate that identifies this part of the grounds was built in 1931 as a receiving post for visitors. The current gate still retains part of the original design. Behind the Centre Gate, bounded by two roads, is a miniature Japanese garden.
The Japanese Garden located behind the Centre Gate fits snugly into the corner bounded by two roads. Completed in August 1967, it is tastefully landscaped with carefully selected plants. It imparts a distinctly different atmosphere from other parts of the grounds.
Sprawling Pine Trees grow around the irregularly shaped lily pond, over which is a miniature wooden bridge. Stone lanterns, rocks and low flowering shrubs with delicate flowers complete the picture. The Japanese garden is at its best in the early morning when the mixed colour water lilies bloom and the Japanese Kois surface in search of food.
The Gun Terrace
The Gun Terrace is marked by a 105mm Japanese cannon, a symbol of the liberation of Singapore after the Japanese Occupation. The Gun Terrace commands a panoramic view of the Istana grounds and the city's skyline.
Sited along its perimeter is the Military Guard Room built in the early 1900s. Further along is a secluded pleasance, approached by descending two flights of steps in the terraced ground.
The Spice Terrace
A few nutmeg trees still grow in the grounds of the Istana. Clove and nutmeg trees in this part of the grounds recall the original Prinsep plantation. The scrawny Nibong palms also found at this location are a sharp contrast to the full-foliaged spice trees.
The spacious parkland here provides an excellent setting for the stately Sri Temasek and Villa. Thorns of the Nibong palm extend to as long as 7 centimetres, presenting a sharp contrast to the sensual buds of the clove flower. Harvested at this stage, the buds will yield the well-known spice.
The Istana Front Lawn stretches from the Istana building to just before the Centre Gate. From Colonial times, garden parties were held on the Front Lawn, where stately Yellow Flames planted by the Duchess of Kent and her son the Duke in 1952 added to its grandeur.
In the centre of this basically English garden is a circular fountain. From this spot, a good view of the Istana Main Building and the President's Standard flying from the highest point of the building can be had. In the garden, a good variety of interesting plants and trees can be found.
The Istana has received fourteen benches fabricated from timber planks recycled from the former National Stadium, as part of URA’s project to commemorate the national icon. The designs for these benches were selected from a public design competition as well as submissions by local designers from various fields. The largest collection of these benches is now in the Istana grounds. For more information, visit http://ura.sg/pickabench