Postcard from Singapore

Spent a few days in Singapore, mostly visiting the city state’s superb public gardens. Singapore’s national flower is the orchid, Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim (formerly Vanda Miss Joaquim).

The orchid was chosen as the national flower in 1981, selected from 40 other blooms, of which 30 were orchids. The National Orchid Garden website says that there are several varieties of Vanda Miss Joaquim with ‘Agnes’ chosen for its “vibrant colours, hardiness and resilience – qualities that reflect the Singapore spirit”.

Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It became the symbol of the Malay Orchid Society since 1957, appears on Singapore’s currency and stamps, and is widely grown on the peninsula, in The Philippines and Hawaii.

The orchid was bred by Agnes Joaquim, a well-known horticulturalist in Singapore, who crossed Vanda Hookeriana and V. teres, “two plants cultivated in almost every garden in Singapore”, according to an 1893 article by H N Ridley (first director of Singapore Botanic Gardens), which described the plant for readers of The Gardeners’ Chronicle. Read the full article here.

Miss Joaquim (1854-99) was a second-generation Singaporean of Armenian descent (her Armenian name was Ashkhen Hovakimian). Read more about her life and keen interest in gardening here. The article also mentions later aspersions cast on the claim that she bred the orchid rather than simply discovering a natural hybrid. An excellent post about the plant at Singapore Infopedia notes that in March 2016, Linda Locke, a great-great-grandniece of Miss Joaquim, began approaching public agencies with research proving that V. Miss Joaquim had been bred by her forebear. On September 7 2016, the National Parks Board and the National Heritage Board officially recognised Miss Joaquim as the breeder.

V. Miss Joaquim was displayed publicly for the first time in Europe at the Royal Horticultural Society show in London in 1897. The RHS awarded a First Class Certificate to Trevor Lawrence, the owner of the plant, which had been grown by his gardener W H White from a cutting sent by Mr Ridley. In 1898, the orchid also gained a Cultural Commendation Certificate.

The flower debuted in Singapore at the annual Flower Show in April 1899, where Miss Joaquim won first prize for  “rarest orchid”.

Before World War 2, V. Miss Joaquim was the mainstay of Singapore’s cut-flower exports and in 1938 a crate of the orchids was flown to Amsterdam for Queen Wilhelmina’s 40th Jubilee.

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2 thoughts on “Postcard from Singapore

  1. A most interesting story for an exquisite flower. I have to wonder if she’d been a man whether there would have been questions raised about her ability to breed, rather than find, this hybrid.

    • Does seem a bit pernickety, doesn’t it? Especially when she had the backing of the director of Singapore Botanic Gardens. And, in another sign of the times, do you like how the owner of the plant, but not the grower, received the RHS certificate?

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