Human Flower Project
Miss Agnes’s Big Little Secret
Singapore’s national flower, a hybrid orchid, wasn’t discovered in the wild but cultivated in secret by an Armenian woman.
Natural plants, like natural talents, usually inspire unadulterated love; human skill and its productions, on the other hand, are always tainted. The well trained singing voice, hair sprayed in place, hothouse flowers—there’s something too premeditated for simple, free enjoyment.
The distinction is especially keen with emblem flowers. In the case of Kentucky, my home state, better to choose a local weed—goldenrod, Solidago altissima —as the state flower than any one of a hundred beautiful non-natives that do well there: bearded iris, let’s say, or lilies of the valley.
Vanda Miss Joaquim ‘Agnes’
Photo: Bill Curtis’s Orchid Page
Ng Tze Yong’s fine piece today for the Singapore Press recounts a floral detective story on this very subject—the saga of Singapore’s national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, which has for 40 years been a source of mystery and controversy.
In 1931, the Malayan Orchid Review extolled this flower’s many virtues: “The Singapore-raised hybrid, Vanda Miss Joachim, is probably for us the best orchid in the world. What orchid can equal it for size, beauty of shape, beauty of colour, freedom of propagation and floribundity, taken all together?”
While Guatemala, Costa Rice and Brazil have chosen species orchids as their national flowers, Singapore’s Vanda Miss Joaquim, is a hybrid, the offspring of V. hookerana and V. teres. To cite e.e. cummings, which realm does Miss Joaquim belong to, the world of born or the world of made?
“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.”
Many orchid breeders through the years have discounted this tale. A guide at the Singapore Botanic Gardens told Ng Tze Yong the flower “could not have been found in a clump of bamboo. It is a plant that grows only in direct sunlight with free air movement.” More to the point, there’s Agnes Joaquim to consider.
She was a skilled and “avid” horticulturist. “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.”
Agnes Joachim first disclosed the voluptuous purple beauty at an 1899 flower show where, “It won the $12 first prize for being the rarest orchid. Suffering from cancer, Miss Joaquim died just three months later. She was 45.”
Miss Agnes Joaquim; Photo: Electric News (Singapore Press)
For more than 100 years, many people were happy to accept that two native orchids had bred in the wild. How could a little Armenian lady have hybridized the flower anyway? It now seems that she did, secretly. Joaquim wasn’t just good at botany; she was a savvy humanist too. Recognizing that her orchid would be preferred as a natural wonder, Joaquim hid her accomplishment inside the “bamboo” of fantasy: a tale of discovery.
When the Miss Joaquim orchid was nominated as the national flower in 1981, many objected, rooting instead for The Vanda Tan Chay Yan, an orchid that had been developed not by someone of Armenian descent but a “true son of the soil.” Miss Joaquim prevailed. In fact, Agnes “like her mother - was born in Singapore, in 1853. Her maternal grandfather had settled here in the 1820s.”
John Elliott, president of the Orchid Society of South-East Asia, got it so right: “The Vanda Miss Joaquim is a hybrid, just like Singapore is a hybrid. .... Our national flower was not created by a bee. It was a human product, just like Singapore.”