The debate

Amassia Publishing

Vanda Miss Joaquim – a deliberate cross
or chance fertilisation


Background to the debate

The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim
by Nadia Wright  Malayan Orchid Review  vol 34/2000

My reply to Hew, Yam and Arditti’s criticism of my 2000 article
‘The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim’ 

A re-examination of the origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim 
by Nadia Wright
Orchid Review September-October 2004.

My reply to  Hew and Arditti’s  criticism of the 2004 article

My reply to Yam, Arditti and Hew’s ‘The Origin of Vanda Miss Joaquim 
How did Vanda Miss Joaquim really originate? 
(Malayan Orchid Review, vol.38/2004)


Ridley H. N. 1893 ‘New and Noteworthy Plants: Vanda Miss Joaquim’,
Gardeners' Chronicle 24 June, p. 740.


Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid
Singapore's national flower
Vanda Miss Joaquim *

Background to the debate

While researching the history of the Armenian community in Singapore, I came upon the story that Agnes Joaquim, the daughter of a prominent Armenian family, had discovered a new orchid in her garden. This orchid was subsequently named Vanda Miss Joaquim after her. It was claimed that one morning when Agnes was loitering alone in her garden, she came across a new type of orchid nestled in a clump of bamboo. Full of excitement she immediately rushed to Henry Ridley to show him her discovery.

However, in an authoritative journal, I also found Henry Ridley’s 1893 account which clearly stated in concise botanical terminology that Agnes had crossed the orchid. Why this had fallen by the wayside, I could not understand as my further research substantiated it.

In 2000, I wrote an article maintaining that Agnes had bred the orchid: this was published in the Malayan Orchid Review (vol. 34/2000). It was criticised by Hew Choy Sin, Yam Tim Wing and Joseph Arditti in their book Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim (Appendix II pages 222-224).

As the points they had raised did not counter my main argument, but focused on minor details, as well as misquoting me and raising speculative matters, I wrote a rebuttal, hoping it could be published in the Malayan Orchid Review. It was proposed that Hew, Yam and Arditti could, in turn, respond to this. This plan did not eventuate.

Strongly feeling that Hew, Yam and Arditti’s criticisms must be addressed, I have reprinted my original article to the Malayan Orchid Review here and followed it with my response to Hew, Yam and Arditti’s criticisms. This also includes comments on their version of the orchid's origins.

New resources have become available to me since that article was printed, adding further weight to the evidence that Agnes crossed the orchid.  In 2004 I published an article in the Orchid Review which is reprinted here. The article was attacked by Hew and Arditti in a letter to the editor. 

I have now added my reply to their letter.

In 2004 Yam, Arditti and Hew published an article in the Malayan Orchid Review again dismissing Ridley’s account and maintaining the orchid had been pollinated by the carpenter bee. I wrote a short letter to the editor rebutting their claims, which was published in 2005. A longer response is published on this website.

As Ridley’s 1893 article is at the heart of the debate, it has been added to this website. The two articles which follow it have been retained so that readers can look at the style and content of reporting. Ridley’s account was discredited, and Agnes's achievement dismissed by Yam, Arditti and Hew on the grounds that Ridley had given no details on germination. As can be seen, neither did the other writers.


The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim

by Nadia H. Wright

This article is reprinted with kind permission of the editor of the Malayan Orchid Review

In June 1893 the orchid world was alerted to the arrival of a new hybrid –Vanda Miss Joaquim.

Hailed originally as the product of much experimentation by its creator Miss Ashkhen Hovakimian or in English, Agnes Joaquim, it is now described as a natural hybrid, which Agnes chanced upon. However taking into consideration Agnes’ horticultural expertise and contemporary accounts of the orchid’s advent, I suggest that she did indeed cross two orchids to produce her namesake.

Agnes, the eldest daughter of Armenians Parsick and Maria Joaquim, was born in Singapore on 7 April 1854. Parsick was a well-established merchant who was interested in flowers and plants, sitting on the committee of the Agri-Horticultural Gardens and on the Board of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Given Parsick’s interest in horticulture and Maria’s love of flowers, it is not surprising that several of their eleven children became enthusiastic gardeners. Each year from 1881, family members col­lected prizes for their flowers and garden produce in the annual Singapore Flower Show. In 1895 the family was awarded prizes in seventeen of the sixty-seven categories, while two years later they won eighteen of the 104 prizes. A remarkable achievement for one family.

Agnes usually garnered the most prizes. This talented lady amassed prize after prize in the 1890s. In 1893, she collected ten Firsts and two Seconds, followed by ten Firsts and five Seconds in 1894 and seven Firsts and eight Seconds in 1895. Her winning entries included begonias, chrysanthemums, crotons, ferns, ixoras, lilies, selaginellas, stephanotis, custard apples, durians, limes, mangosteens, melons, oranges, pineapples, pomelos, soursops, aubergines, cucumbers, French beans, ginger and radishes.

In 1898 Agnes won the First Prize for orchids but it was at the 1899 Flower Show that she reached her zenith. This show, which boasted a splendid exhibition of numerous and gorgeous orchids was praised as the best in years. The highlight was Agnes’ orchid, “named after Miss Joaquim and raised by that lady. This specimen took the prize for the rarest orchid in the show.(The Straits Times 12/4/1899)

The Singapore Free Press added that Agnes had “showed a hybrid which has been named after her, that she has, after repeated trials, succeeded in cultivating.” (12/4/1899) Agnes lived just long enough to be publicly recognised for her achievement. Suffering with cancer, she died on 2 July 1899.

Agnes had produced this orchid in early 1893 by crossing the Burmese V. teres with the Malayan V. hookeriana.[1] She took the resulting flower to Henry Ridley, then Director of the Singapore Botanic Gar­dens.

An expert on orchids, he verified it as a hybrid and sent its details to The Gardener's Chronicle where they were published in June 1893. Ridley also sent cuttings to his friend Sir Trevor Lawrence of Burford Lodge, one of Britain's leading orchidists whose collection of over 3,000 orchids would be revered as one of the finest in England. Here V. Miss Joaquim was nurtured, flowering for the first time in Europe in June 1897. The plant which was between seven and eight feet high and carried nine buds and three expanded flowers was displayed to an admiring public at the Royal Hor­ticultural Show in London where it won a First Class certificate.

Thus V. Miss Joaquim made its debut in England two years before it was shown in Singapore - no doubt facilitated by the facts that Sir Trevor employed Mr W. H. White, one of the foremost orchid growers in England, and boasted the best of horticulture facilities. In England, the hybrid was greeted with great acclaim and publicity - perhaps because a great man was exhibiting it at a prestigious show rather than an unknown lady in a colonial back­water.[2] However, Agnes was given all the credit for having created the hybrid.

In Singapore too, in the 1890s, Agnes was acknowledged as the creator of this orchid, but over the years, the honour has been stripped from her.

Some authors give Ridley credit for recognising the orchid as a hybrid while down playing Agnes' role. For example, Phang (1983) lists Ridley as the breeder, with Agnes’ name in brackets. Other experts have remained unsure and divided about whether the orchid was produced by natural fertilization or deliberate crossing.

Writing in 1959, Yeoh Bok Choon was uncertain but in 1963, he dismissed the possibility that the hybrid had arisen by itself as ‘most ungallant.’ While James Rentoul (1982) stated the orchid was named after the “originator of the cross-pollination and raiser of the seeds,” orchid grower How Yee Peng (New Nation 11/5/1981) concluded the flower was a natural hybrid, a view echoed by A. G. Alphonso and Teoh Eng Soon.

Hence writers refer to the orchid being ‘found’ or ‘discovered’ or ‘appearing’ in her garden. Perhaps it is too hard for male experts to concede that a woman, and one lacking twen­tieth century techniques at that, could have created the orchid. Recently, Merle Reinikka (c1995) even claimed the orchid was “obtained by a grower of Singapore in 1893 and named for his daughter.” The record must be set straight.

So let us go back to when Henry Ridley pronounced the flower a hybrid and sent the details to The Gardener's Chronicle. Certainly he believed that Agnes had cultivated the orchid, and had no doubt discussed the origins with her before claiming publicly that the plant was a hybrid.

 Ridley would not have risked his reputation stating this, had it been untrue. Furthermore, if Agnes had discovered the orchid growing in her garden, Ridley would have said so in the covering notes he sent to The Gardener's Chronicle, for he had nothing to lose by disclosing this. But no, Ridley stated that-

A few years ago Miss Joaquim, a lady residing in Singapore, well known for her success as a horticulturist, succeeded in cross­ing Vanda Hookeriana Rchb. f., and V. teres, two plants cul­tivated in almost every garden in Singapore. Unfortunately, no record was kept as to which was used as the male. The result has now appeared in the form of a very beautiful plant, quite inter­mediate between the two species and as I cannot find any record of this cross having been made before, I describe it herewith.” (24/6/1893; p 740; see also Yam, 1999 p49.)

This wording unequivocally affirms that Agnes created the or­chid some years before, but that she had not recorded which parent was the male. An examination made of Ridley's notes and diaries held at Kew Gardens, by Ms Sandra Bell, regrettably threw no light on this matter as they contained no mention of the orchid or its propagation in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The leading contemporary horticultural journals described the or­chid as “a hybrid raised at Singapore” and did not question the fact that Agnes had made the cross herself [3]. While acknowledging that it was difficult to obtain a vanda from seed, The Orchid Review said it could be done, citing Agnes’ orchid.

There was no contemporary hint that Agnes had discovered a natural hybrid - an event which in itself would have merited mention in the local press. One might ask why there have never been other reported chance fertilisations.

Agnes had ready access to the parent plants. Her brother Joe,[4] a keen grower of orchids, cultivated a prize collection at the Joaquim family residence, Mt Narcis, and later at his own residence, Buitenzorg.

In 1881 Joe had won First Prize for his ‘rare and beautifulVanda teres. In 1885, it again won First Prize for the best orchid. The only orchid shown, it was described as “a very rare variety and about the only one in Singapore now in blossom.” (The Straits Times 30/7/1885; The Singapore Free Press 1/8/1885). If she used her brother’s variety, it suggests Agnes was discriminating in her choice of parent. However, she probably used V. teres var aurorea (Yam, 1999) which Holttum (1964) described as one of the commoner varieties. It may or may not have been so at the end of the nineteenth century.

In the early 1980s, some experts concluded that Agnes lacked the technical equipment or knowledge to have created her hybrid. Alphonso (1981) and Teoh (1982) felt that even if Agnes had been able to make the cross, it would have been very difficult for her to have germinated the seeds without using the asymbiotic flask culture technique.

But other contem­porary and earlier hybridists who also lacked this technique were successful as the appearance of new hybrids proved. Rolfe (1909) advised amateur hybridists that no elaborate preparations were necessary, adding that they should be familiar with the structure of the plant. The plant to be fertilised should have pollen applied to its stigma and details should be recorded.

However, Alphonso did concede that Agnes could have dusted the seeds onto a bed and then been very lucky. Indeed, hearsay suggested she had sown the seeds onto coconut dust where they germinated. (Yeoh 1959). Sandra Bell, the Keeper of Orchids at Kew Gardens considered it quite feasible that Agnes had made the cross in the way Rolfe had suggested.[5]

A wealth of informative literature was available for those who wanted to dabble in hybridisation. In 1876 Charles Darwin had written a book on the fertilisation of orchids. A second edition put out in 1899 included a list of forty books and papers on fertilisation which had been pub­lished since 1876. A very popular reference was The Orchid Grower’s Manual. Periodicals included The Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, The Botanical Journal and The Journal of the Horticultural Society.

Indeed interest in orchids was so great that in 1893, a new journal devoted to orchidology - The Orchid Review, was published. This contained information on problems encountered in raising orchids, advice on pollination and growing seeds plus extensive notes on hybridisation. It listed new hybrids including Agnes’ V. Miss Joaquim in August. Perhaps Joe had acquired some of this literature when he was studying law in England and he most likely subscribed to the journals.

However current opinion seems to prefer the claim made by Agnes’ nephew, Basil Johannes that she had found the orchid in a clump of bamboo. Basil told this story when he was brought to Singapore for the launch of the National Flower in 1981. However, it must be remembered that although Basil was eighty-eight years old at the time, he was only a child of six when Agnes died. Where he heard this story no one knows.

In fact it was contradicted by Basil’s niece, Hazel Locke who recalled her father, John Johannes and Aunt Ripsy[6] saying that Agnes did cross-breed the orchid herself. (Mirzaian 1983) But for some reason, Basil’s version seems to have captured the public’s imagination. Perhaps because it fits in with the latest theory that the orchid was the result of accidental pollination by a carpenter bee. (The Straits Times 27/8/1994)

Just over one hundred years has elapsed since Agnes showed her orchid in Singapore. Why she cross-pollinated Vanda hookeriana and Vanda teres, or if they were the only successful result from many experiments, we shall never know. In 1949, John Laycock concluded that the question of whether Agnes actually crossed the orchids “must now forever remain unanswered.” (Alphonso 1981). I hope this article throws doubt on that prediction. On the contrary Agnes should have full credit for her remarkable achievement restored to her.


Alphonso A. G. ‘Singapore’s National Flower (Vanda Miss Joaquim)’ Malayan Orchid Review. (1981) v. 15 p. 11.

Arditti Joseph ‘Vanilla: An Historical Vignette’ The American Orchid Society Bulletin. (1971) v. 40  p.612.

Darwin Charles (1899) The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. John Murray  London.


Holttum, R.E. (1964). Flora of Malaya: Volume 1 Orchids (3rd Ed.). Singapore: Government Printing Office.

Mirzaian A. (1983) The Comprehensive Armenian Address Book of Australia.  Private Publishing  Sydney  p. 33.

Phang V. P. E. (1983) A List of Orchid Hybrids of Singapore and Malaysia 1960-1980.  Singapore University Press   Singapore   p. 75.

Reinikka Merle A. (c1995) A History of the Orchid.  Timber Press Portland. p. 72.

Rentoul J. N. (1982) Growing Orchids Book Three Vandas Dendrobiums and others.   Lothian Publishing Company Pty Ltd  Melbourne  p. 35.

Rolfe R. A. and C. C. Hurst (1909) The Orchid Stud Book. Frank Leslie and Company Kew  pp.xxxiii- xxxiv

Teoh Eng Soon ‘View Point Vanda Miss Joaquim National Flower of Singapore’ Malayan Orchid Review. (1981) v. 15.

Teoh Eng Soon (1982) A Joy Forever.  Times Books International  Singapore  p.30

The Gardeners’ Chronicle.  June 1893.

The Gardeners’ Magazine.  December 1913.

The Orchid Review.  August 1893; July 1897; July 1898; September 1906; October 1911.

The Singapore Free Press

The Straits Times

Williams B. S. (1894) Orchid Grower’s Manual, containing descriptions of the best species and varieties of orchidaceous plants in cultivation (7th Ed.).  Victoria and Paradise Nurseries London

Wright N. H. Respectable Armenians: A History of the Armenian Communities in Singapore and Malaysia.  ( manuscript).

Yam, T.W. (1999). A possible solution to the parenting riddle of Vanda Miss Joaquim. Malayan Orchid Review, v.33, pp.49-53.

Yeoh Bok Choon (1959). ‘Kinta Weed’. Malayan Orchid Review,  v. 5 p. 81.

Yeoh Bok Choon (1963). ‘Miss Joaquim’s Orchid’. Malayan Orchid Review,  v.7, part 2, p. 37.

Correspondence with Ms Sandra Bell of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Mr John Belling and Mr John Maior of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne and Dr A. D. Krikorian of the State University of New York.


I cannot reprint Hew, Yam and Arditti’s Appendix here, but this is my response to it.

A reply to Hew, Yam and Arditti’s criticism of 
‘The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim’ 
Malayan Orchid Review vol. 34: 2000 by Nadia Wright.

In their 2002 book, Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim, authors Hew Choy Sin, Yam Tim Wing and Joseph Arditti have taken exception to my contention that Agnes Joaquim crossed Vanda hookeriana and Vanda teres to produce Vanda Miss Joaquim. On the basis of one sentence, they have seen an alleged feminist rewrite of history as my primary motive.

However, my purpose was to restore the credit for producing the orchid to Agnes Joaquim; credit which was clearly acknowledged in 1893 by Henry Ridley: a foremost authority on orchids.

The authors have criticised minor points in my article but failed to rebut my main evidence. Moreover, in order to divert attention from this shortcoming, they have not only distorted and misquoted what I wrote, but thrown in a red herring.

I will respond to their criticisms in the order raised, before commenting on their own version of the orchid’s origins.

Firstly, Hew, Yam and Arditti have elevated my small footnote on Edmond Albius to a major factor in my argument. This reference was never more than an aside, in which ‘vanilla’ was spelled correctly, not ‘vanila’ as the authors have said. Accusing me of using ‘out-dated sources’, they claimed the story had since been dismissed by Arditti (1992). However all that Arditti said then, was that the Albius story ‘may be inaccurate’ (p.35).

To bolster their claim that the origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim are unclear, Hew et al. selectively quoted from Yeoh (1963 p.37), who said the hybrid could have arisen naturally, omitting the rest of his sentence which continued ‘but that is a most ungallant suggestion'.

They criticised my mentioning the long list of awards Agnes received at the Flower Shows, on the basis that there is a great difference between growing plants and crossing orchids. There certainly is, but this background information was to indicate Agnes was an experienced horticulturist, who had raised a wide variety of plants to prize-winning standard. This made her foray into breeding an orchid more believable.

Hew et al. attempted to denigrate Agnes’ achievements by saying that so many awards indicated too large a garden for one person to manage, and thus postulated she probably had one or more gardeners to help. Furthermore, they suggested that the gardener could have crossed the orchid. My article clearly stated Agnes’ prizes were not all won in one year, but during the 1880s and 1890s. Besides, competitors in the flower shows submitted their own plants; any grown by gardeners were attributed to them, not their employer (Straits Times 11/1/1884).

Hew et al. then suggested that by my reasoning, thousands of gardeners could have bred orchids, but oddly stated that ‘two gardeners in the UK and one director of a botanical garden in Ireland managed to germinate orchid seeds under horticultural conditions.’ The logic behind this is hard to follow and fails to take into account the many gardeners who were successfully crossing orchids in Britain from 1853.

The authors have twisted my comments on the literature that was available to Agnes. I did not write, ‘Joe may have become familiar with a new journal devoted to orchidology - the Orchid Review…’ and then use that as evidence that Agnes had access to information on hybridisation techniques. Of course the 1893 Orchid Review which featured her orchid, was of no use to Agnes: I never said it was.

They tried to dismiss the  advice on germination given by Rolfe and Hurst in 1909 as it post dated the orchid. But the point I was making, was that even by 1909, no new methods of germination had appeared. The methods advocated were the same as those suggested from the 1870s. Rolfe and Hurst were still saying that no elaborate preparations were necessary, and that orchids could be crossed by amateurs.

While Hew et al. then conceded that Agnes could have become familiar with literature on orchid germination, they felt she would have then left more information about the germination method. However, Ridley’s wording was that Agnes had not kept a record ‘as to which was used as the male,’ implying she did keep some records. It must be pointed out that Dominy had not kept close records of his early hybrids and Rolfe bemoaned the fact that other hybridists did not keep clear records as to which was the seed parent (Rolfe & Hurst pp. i- iii). They were not thought less of because of this. 

Besides, there was no need for Ridley to comment on the method of germination in his article on the orchid. No other contributors did as successful methods of germination were known to growers. See the scan of Ridley’s and others’ articles.

The authors asked why Agnes or her gardener produced only one hybrid, claiming that hybridists tended to produce many crosses. This claim is incorrect. Of the 62 individual orchid breeders listed in Yeoh Bok Choon’s List of Malayan Hybrids, 31 had produced only one hybrid (1963 b). More pertinently, Agnes died on 2 July 1899, less than three months after exhibiting her orchid. We will never know whether she was experimenting with other crosses. 

Hew et al. felt that question also raised doubts on Ridley’s statement that Agnes made the cross, suggesting his comment was probably more ‘allegorical than factual’ (p.223). Earlier in the book, they were even more damning, suggesting that Ridley’s statement was ‘an assumption, a misunderstanding or an example of his uncritical approach’ (p. 46). Why would this be so? Ridley was the foremost expert on orchids in Singapore: prior to his posting, he had delivered a paper on self-fertilization in orchids to the Linnean Society, while leading orchidists such as Frederick Burbidge and James Veitch had sent him orchids for comment and examination (Ridley 1888). 

Why and how would Ridley have misunderstood? Ridley, an experienced and methodical botanist must have discussed the origins of the plant with Agnes. Given her staunch Christian upbringing and known piety, it is extremely unlikely that she would have invented the story of having bred her orchid. Neither she nor her prominent brother Joe, a leading Singapore lawyer and Municipal Commissioner would have allowed untruths about the orchid’s origins to have been published.

Besides, if  Agnes had discovered the orchid growing in her garden, Ridley would have said so - contemporary horticultural literature described and listed both cultivated and hybrid orchids. He himself had collected and catalogued many natural hybrids: this would have been one more. However, he made no suggestion of a chance discovery. 

Next, the authors saw methods of seed germination as working against my claim that Agnes produced the hybrid. They stated that in the UK one method of germination was to spread the seeds at the base of the parent plants, a technique described in the Orchid Review, and too late for Agnes to have used, while other elaborate methods involved special pots. However, methods similar to Dominy’s - namely sowing the seeds on the top of an orchid pot, on a bed of peat or moss, or on blocks of wood where another plant was growing, were being used very successfully. Such methods were advocated by Williams in 1871 in his Orchid Grower’s Manual, (first published in 1852 and in its sixth edition in 1885), which was regarded as the ‘textbook’ by most orchid growers. Indeed they were still being recommended twenty-three years later (Williams 1894) p.40).

Even Hew et al. admitted earlier in their book that Agnes could have made the cross if she had known of the methods being used in Britain - namely scattering seeds at the base of a mature plant (p.49). I have provided evidence that it is more than likely she was aware of these methods.

Finally, Hew et al. said, ‘another statement is that the plant was found in a clump of bamboo.’ I did not state this. They did. But to say it is ‘probably factual’ on the grounds it is ‘a report of an observation’ beggars belief. Who made the observation? Certainly not Basil Johannes, the instigator of the story, who was not even born then. His version, while unsupported, remains hearsay masquerading as history.

It is also at odds with Hew et al.’s earlier statement that if Agnes had scattered seeds, she would not have sown them in a clump of bamboo. How true! Vanda Miss Joaquim needs ‘full sunlight and plenty of air movement’ as mentioned by the authors (p.179 quoting Teoh and Ede). Both these are lacking in a clump of bamboo.

Hew et al. have not refuted my contention in either Appendix II or their chapter on the history of the orchid. Furthermore their own version of the origin is flawed. After confidently asserting that Vanda Miss Joaquim was ‘a foundling,’ they did little to prove it. Perhaps that explains why they later conceded that it was impossible to ‘completely eliminate the possibility’ that Agnes did cross the orchid. 

It is surprising that Hew et al. are loath to accept the contemporary statement of  Henry Ridley, but accept the scenario reconstructed by Teoh (1982 p.29; 1998 p.31), which they quote and present as proof of the moment of discovery, by saying that ‘Dr Teoh described the event’. He did not.

How did Teoh know it was ‘morning’, that Agnes was ‘alone’ that she was ‘loitering’, that ‘she could not contain her excitement’ and that ‘straightaway’ she took it to Ridley? Dramatic reading this may make; an historical account it does not. Teoh’s story of the ‘discovery’ was an imaginative version of what might have happened, yet Hew et al. have chosen to quote it verbatim, seemingly portraying it as fact. 

Teoh’s story was based solely upon Basil Johannes’ comment, made in 1981, that Agnes had found the orchid in a clump of bamboo. But, we must remember that Basil was eighty-eight years old in 1981, and was not even six years old when Agnes died. His family had lived on Java since 1882 and Basil, although born in Singapore, had been raised on Java, coming to Singapore to live in 1901. Thus he would have met Agnes only when the family was on holiday in Singapore. Anything Basil said was second-hand and carries no more weight than statements made by other relatives. His comment that ‘his mother and Aunt Agnes spent a lot of time in the garden’ is too vague to have any meaningful bearing on the case.

Basil also claimed that Agnes’ parents had married in Madras and that her father had been a diamond merchant. Both of these claims are incorrect, leading one to treat his orchid story with extreme caution. However, Hew et al. have unquestioningly and totally accepted it. Basil’s story does not ‘prove the sceptics right’ as Hew et al. claim: it is quite at odds with compelling information from other members of the Johannes family that Agnes did cross the orchid.

For example, Mrs Hazel Locke, the daughter of Basil’s older brother John, recalls that when she and her father walked past a flower shop which had Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids on display, he would cross his two fore fingers and proudly tell Hazel that her great-aunt had crossed the orchid (Mrs Hazel Locke: interview).

It is indeed puzzling that Hew et al. stubbornly refuse to accept Ridley’s statement that Agnes had crossed the orchid. Quite a contrast to their alacrity in believing Basil, whose story they present as the ‘report of an observation.’ Which it was not.

To fit in with their views, Hew et al. played down Ridley’s expertise and credibility by quoting from Holttum (1977) that Ridley’s ‘... published taxonomic work is very confused and often erroneous… he had no understanding of the generic concept…’ It must be noted that the second half of this quotation, (p.20) has been taken from a different context to the first, (p.18), and, after being shortened, has been disingenuously linked to it. It originally read ‘...he had no understanding of the generic concepts so carefully formulated by J. J. Smith’, and referred specifically to the genus Saccolabium. I feel that such a tactic is less than unscholarly, and hypocritical, considering the authors’ criticisms of other writers.

The first comment referred to Ridley’s Flora of the Malay Peninsula, a five-volume taxonomic work written after his retirement to England, and when his health had begun to deteriorate. Any errors in this taxonomy do not impinge upon Ridley’s early work. An excellent field botanist, he had added 200 species of orchid alone to the known flora of the Malayan Peninsula (Holttum 1977). Even Hew et al. lavished great praise on Ridley for his achievements and awards (pp.58-59).

Curiously, although Hew et al. rejected Ridley’s statement that Agnes ‘had crossed the orchid,’ they happily used the first part of that sentence, stating the orchid ‘was found a few [but we do not know how many] years before 1893…’ Furthermore, they had no problems accepting the rest of Ridley’s report, including his detailed description of the orchid, seeing no misunderstandings there.

Surprisingly on page 48, there appeared to be a tacit acceptance of Ridley’s statement that Agnes crossed the orchid, the authors going on to discuss which might have been the male parent. There, the authors stated there was no evidence of how Agnes germinated her plants, but mentioned the methods used in Britain from the 1840s, admitting that Agnes could have known of these techniques and thus could have made the cross (p.49). But they noted that she would not have sown the seeds in a bamboo clump. As mentioned earlier, this admission not only vindicates my view, but further indicates that Basil’s tale should be discounted.

The authors claimed that if she had scattered seeds, many would have germinated and more than one grown to maturity. Given that they had implied it would have been very difficult to raise any seedlings, it is a credit to Agnes that she was able to raise one to maturity. 

Hew et al. saw all this as evidence that the hybrid was spontaneously pollinated by the carpenter bee. However, Teoh (1998 p.35) noted that natural hybrids were ‘distinctly uncommon’ as insect pollinators usually remained faithful to a particular orchid species. The fact that there have never been reported findings of naturally occurring Vanda Miss Joaquims in Singapore would indicate that natural fertilization was most unlikely. We must remember that the imported parent orchids had probably been grown by Joe and Agnes only since around 1880. One wonders if in that short time span, the orchids would have found new pollinators, and in particular, one which would cross-pollinate. If both parents flowered at different times of the year, this would make it still further difficult for natural pollination to have occurred.

As mentioned earlier, if the bee had been the pollinator, Ridley would have said so.  He had observed bee behaviour in Singapore, noting flowers which the carpenter bee had pollinated. The parents of Vanda Miss Joaquim were not listed.

Apart from   mistakes with names and dates, more serious errors occur in the Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim. Inconsistencies occur. For example, on page 60, it was stated that only Vanda teres was foreign to Singapore, but on page 154 Vanda hookeriana was described as ‘imported’.

Incorrect conclusions are drawn. For example, the authors claim it was Laycock who associated ‘Agnes’ with ‘Miss Joaquim’ perhaps based on hearsay. This is incorrect as an 1893 herbarium specimen sheet held in the Singapore Botanic Gardens listed Vanda Agnes Joaquim. Furthermore, an etching of the orchid was labelled ‘Vanda Agnes Joachim’ in the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener in December 1897.

Citations are not detailed. For example on page 61, the authors claimed that Ridley ‘was able to propagate the single shoot he obtained’ from Agnes and produce a sizeable number of plants. The source given, Ridley (1907) is not included in the ‘Literature Cited’. Indeed, many references are not detailed, with page 67 alone containing twelve references which do not appear in the ‘Literature Cited’.

Further cases of truncated quotations occur. On page 61, the authors cited as fact the rumour that one of the Rothschilds bought a cutting of the original plant for 500 guineas. This rumour was mentioned by Yeoh (1963 p.37) who commented that it was uncorroborated, but made a ‘fine story’. Teoh repeated the tale introducing it with the words, ‘one story goes…’ (Teoh 1998 p.8). Hew et al. chose to omit this clause, once again presenting hearsay as fact.

A further example of an engineered quotation occurred when they ‘quoted’ part of John Laycock’s conclusion as ‘Therefore one suggestion is that whether the hybrid was made by Miss Joaquim or was the result of the work of nature “must now remain forever unanswered” (Laycock, 1949a, 1949b). In Laycock’s article, the last clause did not follow on from ‘the work of nature’  as implied by the authors. What Laycock found more interesting, as how after having produced a hybrid seed pod, Agnes dealt with the seeds and raised a flowering plant from them. This was the issue which he felt ‘must now forever remain unanswered. (1949).

In conclusion, Hew, Yam and Arditti have relied on an imaginary reconstruction of Agnes’ ‘finding’ the orchid, which was based on a story told by an elderly man, and which is contested by other family members. Perhaps the authors should have heeded their criticism of a writer whom they said was ‘…careless with facts and seems to have repeated what he was told without checking for accuracy…’ (p.47). Hew, Yam and Arditti have not refuted my theory; rather they have inclined towards it, despite their mischievous red herring, that perhaps the gardener did it.

The words of Henry Ridley, a respected authority on orchids  words are clear and unambiguous: “A few years ago, Miss Joaquim, a lady residing in Singapore, well-known for her success as a horticulturalist, succeeded in crossing Vanda Hookeriana, Rchb. f, and V. teres” (Ridley 1893).


Arditti J. (1992) Fundamentals of Orchid Biology John Wiley & Sons, New York

Hew C. S., Yam T. W. and J. Arditti (2002) Biology of  Vanda Miss Joaquim Singapore University Press Singapore

Holttum R. E. (1977) ‘A Personal View of Orchids’ in J. Arditti (ed.) Orchid biology: Reviews and perspectives, vol. 1 Cornell University Press Ithaca pp.15 -24

HRR 1897, Orchids ‘Vanda Agnes Joachim’, Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, vol.97 (2567), 9 December, p. 547.

Laycock John (1949) ‘Vanda Miss Joaquim’  Philippine Orchid Review vol. 2 pp.2-3.

Ridley H. N. (1888) Notes on Self-fertilization and Cleistogamy on Orchids Linnean Journal Botany vol. XXIV pp.389-395

Ridley H. N. (1893) ‘New and noteworthy plants: Vanda Miss Joaquim’, Gardeners’ Chronicle, 24 June, p. 740

Rolfe R. A. (1911) ‘Sir Trevor Lawrence, Bart’ in The Orchid Review vol. XIX no. 218 pp.49-50

Rolfe R. A. and C. C. Hurst      (1909) The Orchid Stud Book Frank Leslie and Company Kew

Salisbury E. J (1957) ‘Henry Nicholas Ridley 1855- 1956’ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. vol. III pp.140-159

Teoh Eng Soon (1982) A Joy Forever Times Books International, Singapore 2nd ed. (1998) Times Editions Singapore

Williams B. S. (1871) The Orchid Grower’s Manual containing brief descriptions of upwards of 800 species and varieties of orchidaceous plants. (4th edition) Victoria and Paradise Nurseries  London

Williams B. S. (1894) Orchid Grower’s Manual, containing descriptions of the best species and varieties of orchidaceous plants in cultivation. (7th edition enlarged and revised by Henry Williams) Victoria and Paradise Nurseries London

Yeoh Bok Choon (1963a) ‘Miss Joaquim’s Orchid’ Malayan Orchid Review  vol. VII pp.36 -9

Yeoh Bok Choon (1963b) List of Malayan Orchid Hybrids Malayan Orchid Review

[1] However, it had taken another six years for the hybrid seedling to flower in Singapore, hence its debut at the 1899 Flower Show.

[2] The reluctance of some experts to concede that lesser mortals were capable of research and hybridisation is not new. When Edmond Albion, a black slave on Reunion Island developed his simple but very effective way of pollinating the Vanilla orchid in 1841, the experts were incredulous. (Arditti, 1971)

[3] The Orchid review, 1893, v1, p245; The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 13.8.1898.

[4] His name was Joaquim P. Joaquim, but for the sake of clarity, I have referred to him by his nick name.

[5] I have seen accidental tereta Vanda (Papilionanthe) seedlings in beds of parent plants in Kuching (see MOR 1997 v31 p.33) (- Ed)

[6] Basil’s older brother and sister.

[7] Thanks to Harold Johnson


The truth rests in Agnes' epitaph:
"Let her own works praise her"
a fitting tribute to Agnes' success in breeding the orchid.

* Photograph of Vanda Miss Joaquim by courtesy of Robert L. Lancione

Copyright © Nadia Wright 2004. All rights reserved. Written permission must be obtained from the author
before republishing all or any part of this article in any form or by any means.

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