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The Vanda Miss Joaquim Orchid 

 

Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid
Vanda Miss Joaquim *

While many of the Armenian men in Singapore achieved political and social acclaim during their lifetimes, it is a woman whose name lives on, both in Singapore and beyond. She is Ashkhen Hovakimian (Agnes Joaquim) who bred the world's first cultivated Vanda hybrid. Named Vanda Miss Joaquim after her, it is also known as the Singapore orchid, the Wah Kim orchid and the Princess Aloha orchid. Not only was Vanda Miss Joaquim chosen as the national flower of Singapore, but it became one of the most popular and prolific orchids in Singapore, the Philippines and Hawaii.

The eldest daughter of Parsick and Urelia Joaquim, Agnes developed a keen interest in gardening as did her mother and several of her siblings. From 1881 onwards, family members collected prizes for their flowers, fruit, vegetables and floral arrangements in the annual flower shows, with Agnes usually winning the most prizes. She excelled in the 1890s, collecting ten firsts and two seconds in 1893, followed by ten firsts and five seconds in 1894, and seven firsts and eight seconds in 1895. 

Although the Straits Times considered the 1897 Flower Show to be a failure, concluding that 'with the exception, perhaps, of a languid interest in a few orchids, the European is no lover of flowers', Agnes won prizes for orchids, other flowers and fruit. Amongst her awards in 1898, was the first prize for orchids, but her crowning success occurred the following year. 

With its splendid exhibition of numerous and gorgeous orchids, the 1899 Flower Show was lauded as the best for years. The highlight was Agnes' orchid which, the Straits Times noted, was named after Miss Joaquim and raised by her. Agnes had lived just long enough to see her orchid win first prize for the rarest orchid and be publicly recognised for her achievement. Suffering with cancer, she was dead within three months. 

The orchid's debut

Agnes had bred her orchid by crossing the Burmese Vanda teres with the Malayan Vanda hookeriana. In early 1893, she showed the plant to Henry Ridley, the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. After carefully examining the hybrid and having it sketched, Ridley sent a detailed description, emphasising its intermediate floral characteristics, to the Gardeners' Chronicle. This authoritative journal published the details on 24 June 1893, along with those of two other new hybrids. 

Cuttings from that one plant led to the millions of Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids that were to bloom in Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Hawaii, the Philippines and other tropical habitats. In Singapore itself, the orchid became one of the most common flowering plants, with many gardens having at least one bed of Vanda Miss Joaquims. Its exquisitely beautiful colour and shape and resilience, plus the fact that it was one of the few garden flowers to bloom throughout the year, and was one of the easiest orchids to grow and propagate, ensured its popularity. 

National flower

In 1947, Vanda Miss Joaquim, described by John Laycock as 'a child of Singapore' was chosen as the most fitting emblem for the nascent Progressive Party, and not surprisingly, as the crest for the Malayan Orchid Society in 1957. But in April 1981, came the ultimate accolade. From a field of forty contenders, Vanda Miss Joaquim was selected as the national flower of Singapore. 

The controversy

Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid
Vanda Miss Joaquim *

In the 1890s, Agnes was acknowledged as having obtained the orchid through hybridisation, but subsequently, some have stripped that honour from her. Aspersions were first cast in 1931 when the Straits Times announced that a hybrid orchid had been produced in Singapore using the new technique of germinating seeds in a sterile culture. This new orchid was described as the second hybrid to be produced in Singapore or, if Vanda Miss Joaquim had arisen naturally, the first.

The record must be set straight, and the case that Agnes merely 'discovered' the orchid in her garden dismissed. Henry Ridley's 1893 statement that Agnes had bred the orchid is unambiguous. After examining the orchid, he wrote: 

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. 

Agnes should have full credit for her achievement restored to her. Not only did she produce the first Vanda hybrid, but it appears she was the first woman in the world to breed a hybrid orchid.

For further information on this topic go to The Debate.

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


Respected Citizens: the History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia

Author: Nadia H Wright

Paperback
Pages 350; 24 pp. black/white plates; maps, tables; 
bibliography pp. 316-330; index
Price $A40 (+ GST + postage)

The printed book will provide a lot more detail about the Armenians who contributed these lasting memorials. 
Order the book now! 

Editorial on this page has been shortened, and some colour images added that are not contained in the printed version.

 

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