Agnes Joaquim

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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 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.


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.',4136,92598,00.html

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