THE PLANT KEEPERS

It takes years for a newly created orchid hybrid to flower

(Clockwise from above): National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim says it is usually the hybrid's mother that determines its flower's size and shape; assistant director Simon Tan says it takes two to six years for a hybrid to flower; the Vanda
National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim says it is usually the hybrid's mother that determines its flower's size and shape. PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, NPARKS
(Clockwise from above): National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim says it is usually the hybrid's mother that determines its flower's size and shape; assistant director Simon Tan says it takes two to six years for a hybrid to flower; the Vanda
Assistant director Simon Tan says it takes two to six years for a hybrid to flower.PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, NPARKS
(Clockwise from above): National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim says it is usually the hybrid's mother that determines its flower's size and shape; assistant director Simon Tan says it takes two to six years for a hybrid to flower; the Vanda
The Vanda Kwa Geok Choo is named after Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wife.PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, NPARKS
(Clockwise from above): National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim says it is usually the hybrid's mother that determines its flower's size and shape; assistant director Simon Tan says it takes two to six years for a hybrid to flower; the Vanda
The Aranda Lee Kuan Yew shares some lineage with the orchid named after Mrs Lee.PHOTOS: YEO KAI WEN, NPARKS

Singapore Botanic Gardens was made a Unesco World Heritage Site last week, becoming just one of three gardens in the world, and the only one in Asia, to earn that honour. The Straits Times speaks to the passionate men and women helming plant research there.

One day after former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died in March, the National Parks Board announced that it had named a hybrid orchid in his honour.

But the new orchid, which has bright golden flowers with a green tinge, was years in the making.

Mr Simon Tan, 31, assistant director of the Botanic Gardens' National Orchid Garden, told The Straits Times that the Aranda Lee Kuan Yew orchid had taken about four years from the day its parents were crossed to its first flowering.

Mr Lee's hybrid is a cross between a native orchid, the Arachnis hookeriana, and a hybrid orchid from Hawaii. It shares a few species in its lineage with the Vanda Kwa Geok Choo, the orchid named after Mr Lee's wife, who died in 2010.

Mr Tan said that, in general, it takes two to six years from the day a hybrid orchid's parents are crossed to its first flowering.

The gardens has more than 1,000 species of orchids and about 2,000 hybrids, housed mainly in the National Orchid Garden, making it the largest display in Asia.

Since 1956, Singapore has also named 210 orchids after important guests and dignitaries, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela.

The first such "VIP orchid" was the Aranthera Anne Black, named after the wife of a former governor of Singapore.

Mr Tan said the National Orchid Garden's breeders aim to create about 20 quality hybrid orchids every year. The hybrid orchid to be named after each VIP is usually chosen from those that are flowering during his visit. "We can sort of project what we want to achieve, such as certain colours, size and form of the flowers and the size of the plant, but that depends on a bit of luck," he said.

Mr David Lim, 70, the orchid garden's nursery manager, said that, usually, the hybrid's mother imparts the size and shape of its flowers, while the father is responsible for characteristics like the flowers' colours. "But there are also certain genes that are very dominant, such as genes that give you red flowers. Whatever you cross with those genes, you will most likely get red flowers," he said.

Hidden or recessive genes in the parents may also throw a spanner in the works. Orchids with recessive albinism genes, for example, may produce unexpected white flowers. But even without hidden surprises, the process of achieving the wanted colours is not as straightforward as mixing paint colours. "You don't get green through yellow and blue. It's not that easy," said Mr Tan.

He added that with 25,000 to 30,000 known species of orchids, experience counts for a lot in creating hybrids. "There are scientific principles behind the process, but it's still very intuitive and complex," he said.

Feng Zengkun

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'It takes years for a newly created orchid hybrid to flower'. Print Edition | Subscribe