Did Miss Joaquim find it or breed it? By Ng Tze Yong
Electric New Paper, Singapore Aug 5 2005
WHO would have thought the national flower - Vanda Miss Joaquim - would be at the centre of a controversy spanning 40 years and several countries?
Agnes Joaquim. And it all has to do with the romantic version of how the flower was discovered.
The story goes like this:
One morning around the year 1890, Miss Agnes Joaquim had stepped into the garden of her Tanjong Pagar house when she discovered, peeking out from the middle of a bamboo clump, a little purple flower.
It was a beauty. Its broad round petals were rosy-violet and its centre a fiery orange.
The 36 year-old Armenian woman, an avid horticulturist, was excited because she had just discovered a new orchid hybrid.
The story is not true, say several academics and orchid buffs.
Miss Joaquim had herself raised the orchid, which became the national flower in 1981.
In a telephone interview from Australia, Ms Nadia Wright, a historian who researches the history of Armenians in Singapore, said:
'The idea of Agnes finding the national flower of Singapore one morning in a clump of bamboo is a pretty story. Unfortunately, it is just a myth.'
To return credit to Miss Joaquim, she is writing a book to set out her thesis.
The Armenian New Zealander's previous book, Respected Citizens, is an account of Armenians in Singapore.
Mr Harold Johnson, 61, an orchid hobbyist for 30 years, raised similar doubts.
'The orchid could not have been found in a clump of bamboo. It is a plant that grows only in direct sunlight with free air movement,' the tour guide at the Singapore Botanic Gardens said.
Mr. Johnson is wrong! In fact the conditions required for orchid seed germination and plant growth are different. The more protected environment inside a bamboo clump would have been just right for seed germination even if it was not ideal for mature plants.--Professor Joseph Arditti.
Because of the many factual errors in "The Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim", Professor Arditti must be doubted. I have made no comment as to the location of the seed resulting from Agnes's crossing may have germinated; it would flower in the shade of a bamboo clump. The orchid's existence was known since at least 1893, the bamboo enter the story in early 1980's. There is no previous historial reference.
Mr Paul Johannes, the grandnephew of Miss Joaquim and her only living descendant in Singapore, said: 'Agnes was a renowned horticulturist. It would be strange for her to 'stumble' upon the flower.'
In 1981, when the Vanda Miss Joaquim was selected as the national flower, there was grumbling.
One journalist condemned it, giving his support to another orchid. The Vanda Tan Chay Yan, he argued, had been developed by a 'true son of the soil'.
But Miss Joaquim was as Singaporean as anyone could be, her supporters argued.
Miss Joaquim - like her mother - was born in Singapore, in 1853. Her maternal grandfather had settled here in the 1820s.
The eldest daughter in her family, Miss Joaquim helped her mother raise her 10 siblings after her father died.
She never married. She divided her time between the Armenian Church of St Gregory on Hill Street and her garden in Tanjong Pagar.
It was at a flower show in 1899 that Miss Joaquim unveiled the Vanda Miss Joaquim, possibly almost a decade after its discovery.
It won the $12 first prize for being the rarest orchid.
Suffering from cancer, Miss Joaquim died just three months later. She was 45.
For the next 60 years or so, it was generally accepted that Miss Joaquim had cultivated the flower.
In the 1960s, however, doubts arose.
Orchid experts questioned how someone in the 19th century could have the skills to hybridise orchids.
Orchid cross-breeding is usually done by a method known as flasking. Different orchid seeds are placed in a sterile flask and provided with sugar and chemicals for germination to take place.
That's a technique from the 1920s.
Miss Joaquim was also unable to verify which species was used as the male in the hybridisation.
'Orchid growers always keep detailed notes about their cultivations,' said Mr Joseph Arditti, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Irvine in an e-mail interview.
The 73-year-old orchid expert jointly wrote Biology Of Vanda Miss Joaquim, a book published by the National University of Singapore.
He pointed out that while Miss Joaquim did win many horticulture prizes at flower shows, she had never been known to exhibit orchids.
THEORY GIVEN BOOST
By the time the Vanda Miss Joaquim was selected as the national flower, it had come to be viewed as a natural hybrid.
The Straits Times praised it as the 'first hybrid (orchid) found in Singapore', sighted in the garden of Miss Agnes Joaquim.
This theory was given a boost when Mr Basil Johannes, Miss Joaquim's nephew, was invited to Singapore for the launch of the national flower.
In his speech, the 88-year-old recalled how his aunt found the flower in a clump of bamboo.
But Ms Wright pointed out: 'Basil was only 6 when Agnes died. I don't know how he remembered what his aunt told him.'
For Ms Wright, the historical evidence is clear.
In a letter to the premier horticulture journal Gardener's Chronicle in 1893, Mr Henry Ridley, then director of the Botanic Gardens, had stated that Miss Joaquim bred the orchid herself.
Miss Joaquim would have been the first woman to breed an orchid hybrid.
Singapore is the only country with an orchid hybrid as the national flower.
'The Vanda Miss Joaquim is a hybrid, just like Singapore is a hybrid,' said Mr John Elliott, president of the Orchid Society of South-east Asia.
'Our other national icon, the Merlion, is also a hybrid.
'Miss Joaquim created something uniquely Singaporean,' he added.
'Our national flower was not created by a bee. It was a human product, just like Singapore.'
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Agnes Joaquim: the lady who bred Vanda Miss Joaquim
Ashkhen Hovakimian, or in English, Agnes Joaquim, bred the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, also known as the Singapore orchid and the Princess Aloha orchid.
Born in Singapore on 7 April 1854, Agnes was the eldest daughter of Parsick and Urelia Joaquim. Urelia herself had been born in Singapore in 1828, one of the daughters of pioneering Armenian merchant Isaiah Zechariah and his wife Ashkhen.
Agnes and other family members took a keen interest in horticulture, winning many prizes in the annual flower shows. In April 1899, Agnes showed her hybrid orchid which naturally gained a First Prize. Sadly within three months she was dead having succumbed to illness. Her orchid however, spread like wildfire throughout the tropics and became very popular in Hawaii.
In 1981, the orchid was chosen as the national flower of Singapore. But while fame was assured for the orchid, Agnes’ true role in breeding it was cast aside.
Instead a dramatised story was published describing how Agnes had discovered it when she was ‘loitering alone’ in her garden ‘one morning’. But this is just a story: not history. To learn the truth, we must return to historical sources.
After producing her orchid by crossing the Burmese Vanda teres with the Malayan Vanda hookeriana, Agnes showed the hybrid to Henry Ridley, the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Ridley examined it, had it sketched and sent a description to the Gardeners' Chronicle writing 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.’ (Gardeners' Chronicle 24 June 1893, p.740)
If Agnes had discovered the orchid growing in her garden, Ridley would have said so, as he would have had nothing to lose by disclosing that fact. He had collected and catalogued many natural hybrids: this would have been one more. However, Ridley made no suggestion of a chance discovery. Instead, he clearly stated that Agnes had crossed the two parent orchids and furthermore, that he had found no record of anyone else having already made this cross.
So how did the ‘discovery’ version of events happen? In 1981 when Agnes' nephew, Basil Johannes was invited to Singapore for the launching of Vanda Miss Joaquim as the national flower, he said that Agnes had found the orchid in a clump of bamboo.
But Basil was then eighty-eight years old and was only six when Agnes died. Basil's recollections may have become a little hazy - certainly, other comments he made about the family were incorrect.
In contrast, Hazel Locke, the daughter of Basil's much 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 forefingers and proudly tell Hazel that her great-aunt had bred the orchid.
Further doubts about Basil's story are raised when one considers that Vanda Miss Joaquim needs direct sunlight and a lot of air movement, thus it was most unlikely to have arisen in the shade of a bamboo clump.
Evidence supports the fact that Agnes bred the orchid as unambiguously stated by orchid expert Henry Ridley in 1893, whereas nothing substantiates Basil Johannes' statement that she found it in a clump of bamboo.
For further details on Agnes Joaquim and her orchid see
H. Johnston and N. Wright, 2008 Vanda Miss Joaquim: Singapore’s National Flower and the Legacy of Agnes and Ridley, Suntree Media Pte Ltd, Singapore Wright N. H. 2000, ‘The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim’, Malayan Orchid Review, vol. 34, pp. 70-3. Wright N. H. 2003 Respected Citizens: the History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia, Amassia Publishing, Middle Park, Australia. Wright N. H. 2004, ‘A re-examination of the origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim’, Orchid Review, vol. 112(1259), pp. 292-8.