Growing VIP orchids

The National Orchid Garden creates the hybrid orchids named after heads of state and celebrities

In its 59 years of naming orchids after Very Important People, you could say this year has been a standout year of star hybrids for the National Orchid Garden.

Notable hybrids this year include the Aranda Lee Kuan Yew, named after the late Mr Lee following his death in March. The bloom, whose parentage is the Arachnis hookeriana and the Vanda Golden Moon, has bright, greenish, golden-yellow sepals and petals.

Then there is the impressively named Papilionanthe Singapore Golden Jubilee - with a mauveand-white combination for its petals and sepals - which was named in August to commemorate the nation's 50th year of independence.

Both of these are orchid hybrids of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Aside from these, seven orchids have been named after VIPs - and important events - as of last month. Usually, four to eight VIP orchid hybrids are named each year.

Special ones include the Dendrobium Golden Friendship, named in June to celebrate 50 years of Australia-Singapore ties. Grown from a Singaporean hybrid and an Australian species, it was named by then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The First Lady of Indonesia who visited in July also has one - the Dendrobium Iriana Jokowi, with the orchid becoming a light reddishpurple when it blooms.

There are two types of orchid naming, namely VIP orchids for visiting heads of state and heads of government and celebrity orchids for other important visitors to the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The first orchid to be named after a VIP in 1956 was the Aranthera Anne Black, for Lady Anne Black, the wife of a former governor of Singapore. There are about 200 VIP orchids and about 20 celebrities, such as local singer Stefanie Sun, with orchids named after them.

The National Orchid Garden works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which requests for orchids to be named after visitors.

What ends up being picked "depends on what is flowering" at the moment, says Mr Simon Tan, 32, assistant director at the National Orchid Garden. Hybrid orchids take two to six years to flower from the day the parents are crossed.

"We have an ongoing stock of unnamed hybrids, but the MFA advises us on taboo colours. If there are preferred colours, we try and accommodate the request," Mr Tan adds.

While the flowers are picked at random, there are times when the chosen bloom might not share the same qualities as their namesake.

The Papilionanda David Cameron, named after the British Prime Minister who visited in July, drew chuckles online and in the British media. The orchid's purple flowers better suited the colours of the UK Independence Party, a British opposition party, instead of the blue shade of Mr Cameron's Conservative Party, observers said.

Flowers named after state dignitaries are placed in the VIP Orchid Garden section behind Burkill Hall.

While visitors snap away at the 2,000 hybrids and 1,000 species of orchids in the garden, orchid hybridisation happens in a sprawling 1ha nursery tucked away from the main garden.

But visitors will soon be able to check out behind-the-scenes nursery operations when a viewing deck is completed as part of a larger upgrade in 2020. The nursery, where the plants are cultivated for display, is not open to the public for now.

Mr Tan calls this nursery the "cradle of life". He and a team of 20 work to keep it flourishing. Young saplings are kept in enclosed spaces to keep squirrels from feasting on their succulent stems, while hardier and older orchids are grown outdoors in neat rows.

The breeders have to master the art of cross-pollinating different species and existing hybrids.

Using a piece of sturdy, finetipped material such as a wire to carefully retrieve pollen from the stamen, the male part of an orchid, Mr Tan deposits the pollen on the sticky stigma, or female part of another orchid.

"We're the insects," he says. "We play that role of transferring pollen to the orchids. And you have to know which orchids breed with which." For example, dendrobiums will breed only with dendrobiums.

If fertilisation is successful, the seed pods will then take a few weeks to months to develop and ripen. They are then sent to the laboratory before they split open for seed sowing and germination at the Botany Centre to prevent them from being contaminated by fungus or bacteria spores. In the laboratory, the pods are sterilised and sliced open to extract the dust-like seeds, which are then placed in an agar medium to germinate.

The orchid seedlings then grow and are transferred to other media, such as sphagnum moss, as they mature. Finally, when the plantsflower, a specimen with the best characteristics is picked to representthe hybrid.

Good breeders, says Mr Tan, have at least a decade of experience and must have worked with different kinds, hybrids and species so they can "sort of predict what they want to achieve in the product".

"It's a science with a lot of principles and theories, but it's also an artform. Luck also plays a big part. Even if you have the best-looking parents, it doesn't mean you'll get a good-looking child. It's all about genetics," adds Mr Tan, who used to be an orchid hobbyist with numerous orchid pots in his home.

The chosen bloom gets cloned so that new plants with the same look can be grown again when the plant gets sick or dies.

The nursery aims for 20 quality crosses every year, with the criteria including the height of the plant, flower count and the shape and size of the flower. Once hybrids have been chosen to be named, the bloom is registered with the Britainbased Royal Horticultural Society, a 211-year-old organisation that is the international registration authority for orchid hybrids.

And there is an abundance of hybrids to go around. The society writes on its website that in the last 150 years, orchids "have been widely crossed in cultivation to produce more than 110,000 hybrids. In excess of 3,000 new orchid hybrids are being added annually."

The National Orchid Garden here gets requests to buy these star hybrids, but they are not for sale. says Mr Tan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Growing VIP orchids Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana Aranda Lee Kuan Yew Dendrobium Stefanie Sun'. Print Edition | Subscribe