Green Treasures of the Istana
A particular variant of the Rain tree with striking yellow leaves can be found on the Front Lawn of the Istana.
The Istana stands on a former nutmeg plantation, acquired in 1867 to build a property to reflect the growing importance of an early colonial settlement and seat of government. Designed by the Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department Major John McNair, the building, then known as Government House, was completed in 1869 as a home for the Governor, Sir Harry Ord.
The building was built in classical architectural style, with ornate cornices, arched verandahs, high windows and complete with elegant columns and balustrades. A beautiful entrance staircase leads visitors to the main entrance, befitting a palatial setting.
In 1959, it was handed over to the Singapore government when the colonial era ended. It was renamed the Istana (‘palace’ in Malay) and became the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore.
Today, the grounds of the Istana, formally known as the Istana Domain, cover over 40 hectares in the city, a verdant green lung that is also a sanctuary for a variety of flora and fauna.
Green gentle giants
The trees of the Istana Domain have borne witness to milestones in the Singapore story.
Tembusu trees in the grove are said to be over a century old, the original inhabitants of our island; while Yellow Flames have provided shade for guests during the time of colonial rule and after Singapore’s independence. And majestic Rain Trees have greeted all visitors, from foreign dignitaries to the ordinary man-on-the-street, as they enter the compound from the Main Gate.
Here, we introduce eight trees found in the Istana Domain. Be sure to check them out the next time the Istana is opened for visitors.
Rain Tree (Samanea saman)
A row of Rain trees line Edinburgh Road, welcoming visitors as they head towards the Istana.
Photo credit: Felix Siew
A line of Rain trees greets visitors as they enter the Main Gate. A fast-growing tree that can reach up to 25 m in height with a canopy of a large umbrella-shaped crown, the Rain tree provides much needed shade for visitors as they travel along Edinburgh Road towards the Istana.
Native to tropical America, Rain trees were reportedly first brought into Singapore in 1876. They were extensively planted alongside roads on the island in the 19th century. Its fern-like leaflets fold together in the evenings or during rain storms while its delicate, pinkish white tiny flowers bloom in clusters. Its branches also support a variety of ferns such as the Staghorn (Platycerium) and Bird’s Nest ferns (Asplenium nidus).
A particular variant of the Rain tree with yellow leaves can be found on the Front Lawn. Look for one of these yellow Rain trees that was planted by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1998 at the launch of the Singapore Kindness Week.
Nibong Palm (Oncosperma tigillarium)
You will need to tilt your head up to admire the graceful Nibong Palm that can grow up to 25 m in height.
Native to Southeast Asia, the Nibong palm is usually found in coastal swampy areas. On the Istana Domain, it can be found both near the Main Gate of the Istana and at the link road leading to Melati Gate.
Growing in thick clumps, this tall, straight and spiny trunk palm with a light feathery crown can grow to 25 m tall. Its leaflets curve downwards, giving the palm a graceful appearance. Wood from the Nibong Palm is hard, durable and resistant to salt water and termites, ideal for the construction of boats, kelongs and tropical fish traps. The sharp spines on the trunk make good blow-pipe darts and javelin heads for spearing fish.
Its huge and magnificent size also makes it suitable for landscape design work.
Merkus Pine (Pinus merkusii)
The pretty Merkus Pine (in the foreground) enhances the zen quality of the miniature Japanese Garden.
Photo credit: Felix Siew
Completed in 1967, the miniature Japanese Garden has stone and wooden bridges, lanterns and pebbles, creating a serene and picturesque landscape. Here you can find the Merkus Pine which adds to the zen quality of the surroundings.
An evergreen upright tree with long needles in tufts, it can grow up to 50 m in height. The most southerly and tropical of all true pines, it has a conical-shaped crown with many ascending branches arising from the main trunk. It produces cones that are cylindrical with numerous woody scales spirally arranged.
The Merkus Pine is a popular ornamental tree found in other parks and gardens. As its wood is rather durable, the tree is also useful as a buffer from strong winds.
Weeping Rhu (Casuarina rumphiana)
The Weeping Rhu (in the foreground) can grow up to 15 m in height.
Photo credit: Felix Siew
To the right of the Japanese Garden and off Edinburgh Road lies The Villa. An elegant double-storey bungalow, that used to house the Attorney-General during the colonial government era, can be found here. The building, completed in 1908, is now framed by groves of trees at the back and on either sides.
Look for the Weeping Rhu that stands in front of the bungalow. This is a slow-growing tree that can reach heights of 10 to 15 m, and is native to the Moluccas, Celebes and the Philippines. The Weeping Rhu has a distinguishing habit: its needle-twigs droop in green tassels on the underside of the branches.
The tree belongs to the Casuarinaceae family – its teeth-like leaves are unable to photosynthesise; instead its twigs perform this function. Tanjong Rhu Road, in the east of Singapore, is named after the Common Rhu that used to line the road.
Ceylon Ironwood (Mesua ferrea)
The Ceylon Ironwood produces pinkish new leaves that add a dash of colour amid the verdant green backdrop.
A stone’s throw away from the Japanese Garden is the Gun Terrace and Military Guardroom. Here, the Ceylon Ironwood, with its regular flushes of colourful pinkish new leaves, stand out particularly when seen against a background of older green leaves.
A slow-growing evergreen tree, it is so named because of its hard, heavy, reddish-brown wood that sinks in water, even after it is dried. This makes the timber suitable for heavy construction and tool handles. It produces large and attractive white single flowers with bright yellow centre, but they last for only one day.
Jelutong (Dyera costulata)
Look towards the lily pond at the end of the Lily Pond Garden to spot the stately Jelutong trees that stand behind the gazebo.
Photo credit: Felix Siew
The stately Jelutong may be found in the Lily Pond Garden – four of them stand behind the gazebo at the far end of this pretty green space.
A large forest tree that originates from Peninsular Malaysia, the columnar Jelutong can grow up to more than 60 m tall in a natural setting. Distinguished by its lofty dome-shaped crown, the tree tends to shed its leaves after the dry season. A striking feature is its attractive reddish brown flushes of new leaves that usually occurs in the middle of the year. While its white flowers are tiny, it produces fruit pods that are woody and massive.
Its timber can be harvested for dry goods such as the manufacture of pencils and drawing boards, while its latex can be used in the manufacture of chewing gum.
Star Apple Tree (Chrysophyllum cainito)
(Left) The leaves of the Star Apple Tree (in the background) have unique colouring, they are dark green on top while golden-brown beneath. (Right) The baseball-sized fruit of the Star Apple Tree is bright green that ripens to violet.
While in the Queen Victoria Garden, look for the Star Apple Tree. Native to tropical America, its leaves have a beautiful shimmering effect as they rustle in the wind, thanks to its unique colouring – dark green on top while golden-brown beneath.
It is an erect tree with a dense broad crown, growing up to 15 m tall. Its bark is brown and rough to touch. It derives its common name from the round baseball-sized fruit which are bright green at first and darken to violet when ripe, and when cut, reveals a star-shaped core. The fruit can be eaten as a fresh dessert; its pulp is sweet and best served chilled.
Yellow Flame Tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum)
The bright golden yellow flowers of the Yellow Flame Tree cover its crown, catching the eyes of visitors.
The strikingly attractive Yellow Flame trees line the exit driveway of the Main Istana Building.
Growing up to 20 m, the tree has an umbrella-shaped crown with moderate dense foliage. Its flowers are bright golden yellow emitting a fragrant smell and covering the crown. Flowering lasts a few weeks after which, woody purple-brown fruit pods develop and stay on the crown for a few months.
Extensively planted as a shade tree throughout Singapore, its wood can be used to make crates and furniture. Its bark is said to have medicinal value and is used as a dye in the batik industry in Java.
Open House and Guided Walks
Visit the Istana during its Open House to get up close to these trees, explore the beautiful green spaces and admire this unique piece of the Singapore story. You can also sign up for the Nature Guided Walk, a collaboration between the President’s Office and NParks, which will showcase the Istana’s flora and fauna.
The Istana is opened on the following holidays this year: Chinese New Year, Labour Day, Hari Raya Pausa, National Day, and Deepavali, as well as for the Istana 150 Commemoration event. Please visit the Istana website for updated dates.
Entrance to the Istana is free for Singaporeans and Singapore Permanent Residents, and S$2 for all other visitors. The guided walk will be conducted hourly from 10 am to 4 pm. Charges apply for the walk.
Civic District Tree Trail
Like to learn more about other majestic and interesting trees found within Singapore’s civic district? Join the Civic District Tree Trail to learn about their history and significance to the transformation and progress of Singapore through the years.
Interested in learning more about trees that make up our urban forest? Check out trees.sg, our online map which shows the locations of over 500,000 trees, features interesting bites of information on unique tree species, and even lets you show some love to your favourite tree by leaving it a treemail and giving it a hug!
Get up close and personal with some of the trees on our island by going on a walking or cycling trail in our parks, gardens and park connectors. Besides admiring the trees, you can also potentially spot biodiversity. Lean more about going on a DIY walk.
Mature trees are part of the natural heritage of Singapore, serving as important green landmarks in our City in a Garden. These trees help us identify with and stay rooted to the place we call home. The Heritage Tree Scheme, started in 2001, advocates the conservation of Singapore’s mature trees. Learn more about how you can nominate a tree for this scheme.
Text by Felix Siew
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