Guided nature walks at Istana Open House

SINGAPORE - Those with a keen nose may recognise the Bread Flower vine by the "pandan" scent of its flowers.

But few would know that this graceful plant was a favourite of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife, or that they introduced it so guests could enjoy the fragrance during functions on the Istana lawn.

Visitors will hear such historical and botanical gems when the Istana begins to host guided nature walks during Open Houses, starting this Saturday.

The official residence and office of the President is open to the public four times a year, each time attracting about 10,000 people.

Led by volunteer guides with the National Parks Board (NParks), the one-hour walk tours areas such as the Spice Terrace, Queen Victoria Garden and Function Lawn.

Visitors will learn of the two resident wild Oriental Pied Hornbills, uncommon birds such as the Lesser Whistling Duck and Oriental Magpie Robin, and see a Tembusu tree over 150 years old.

Last November, a barn owl paid a surprise visit to PM Lee Hsien Loong's Istana office.

"These are snippets which visitors to the Istana miss out on because there's no one to tell them," said NParks director of conservation Wong Tuan Wah.

The Istana was built on the grounds of a former nutmeg plantation in 1867. Its expansive, undulating 43ha grounds are home to about 10,000 trees.

The idea to add a nature walk to the guided tours of the main building now conducted during Open Houses originated with President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

His office approached NParks with a plan to share the rich heritage of the Istana gardens, managed by a special NParks team.

The guided walk was first tried out during last November's Deepavali Open House.

On Tuesday, President Tan hosted about 30 students and visitors on a special preview of the tour.

Volunteer guide Bian Tan, 52, a consultant for the Singapore Botanic Gardens, said it showcases biodiversity in the middle of the city. "The Istana attracts Red-whiskered Bulbuls, hornbills - it's a beautiful oasis."

Said Queenstown Secondary student Li Rong Rong, 16: "I saw some plants that I don't usually get to see, like the torch ginger."

The tours on Saturday's Chinese New Year Open House will be at half-hour intervals between 10am and 4pm. They are priced at $4 for Singaporeans and permanent residents and $10 for other visitors. All proceeds will be donated to the Community Chest.

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