Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vanda Miss Agnes Joachim

“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.”

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.”

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