Vanda Miss Joaquim's namesake gets official credit as creator

Vanda Miss Joaquim At The Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Gardens' Website Currently States That Its First Scientific Director, Henry Ridley, Named The Flower After Agnes Joaquim, ''In Whose Garden The Hybrid Originated''.
Vanda Miss Joaquim At The Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Gardens' Website Currently States That Its First Scientific Director, Henry Ridley, Named The Flower After Agnes Joaquim, ''In Whose Garden The Hybrid Originated''. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Two govt bodies amend records to recognise horticulturist for cross-breeding national flower

A debate over the origins of Singapore's national flower seems to have been resolved at long last.

For more than 30 years, there has been no consensus on whether the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid hybrid was a product of nature, or whether it was artificially cross-bred by the late Agnes Joaquim, an Armenian horticulturist born in Singapore.

But two key government bodies, the National Parks Board (NParks) and the National Heritage Board (NHB), are amending their official records to clearly credit the human hand behind this bloom.

They now acknowledge the role of Miss Joaquim in cross-pollinating the Vanda hookeriana and Vanda teres to create the plant.

In contrast, over the past few decades, some had speculated that Miss Joaquim had merely stumbled upon the plant in her garden, and did not directly credit her for cross-breeding the hybrid.

  • Tracing the history of an orchid

  • 1 The orchid was taken to the Botanic Gardens' first scientific director, Henry Ridley, in early 1893 by Miss Agnes Joaquim, an Armenian horticulturist born here, or her younger brother Joe.

    A specimen sheet from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, dated April 1893, describes the plant as an artificial hybrid. This sheet was likely documented by director Ridley.

    2 In June 1893, Ridley announces the following in The Gardeners' Chronicle, a British horticulture periodical:

    "A few years ago Miss Joaquim, a lady residing in Singapore, well-known for her success as a horticulturist, succeeded in cross Vanda Hookeriana, Rchb. f., and V. teres, two plants cultivated in almost every garden in Singapore..."

    3 In April 1899, The Straits Times carried a report on Miss Joaquim winning the top prize for the rarest orchid at a flower show that year, noting that it had been raised by her.

    A report of the same flower show by The Singapore Free Press noted that "Miss Joaquim showed a hybrid, which has been named after her, that she has, after repeated trials, succeeded in cultivating".

    4 Ridley's documentation was accepted by botanical experts, including his Botanic Gardens successors Isaac Henry Burkill and Eric Holttum. The Royal Horticultural Society also recorded it as an artificial hybrid.

    5 But over the years, questions about whether the plant was a natural or artificial hybrid were raised by several individuals. They suggested that the hybrid could have been pollinated by carpenter bees.

    Melody Zaccheus

For instance, the current version of the Singapore Botanic Gardens' website merely states that its first scientific director, Sir Henry Ridley, had named the plant after Miss Joaquim, "in whose garden the hybrid originated".

The National Library-operated Infopedia page on the flower does not offer an official account of its origins but notes the controversy and the two contradicting perspectives.

The page states: "One argument is that the plant is a natural hybrid and was discovered by Agnes Joaquim, who spotted it in her garden at 2 Narcis Street, Tanjong Pagar, in 1893."

The move to update the official records was started by Miss Joaquim's great-great-grand niece, Ms Linda Locke, a 63-year-old Singaporean, in March.

Ms Locke contacted the authorities with a large body of research that she had dug up over the past six months to refute naysayers, some of whom have argued that the hybrid could have occurred naturally, such as a result of being pollinated by carpenter bees.

Ms Locke wanted public agencies here to present consistent accounts of her ancestor's achievement and reduce confusion among Singaporeans over the history of their own national flower.

She noted that the plant was officially recorded with the Singapore Botanic Gardens on a specimen sheet dated April 1893, where it was described as an artificial hybrid.

She also cited Sir Ridley's announcement of her ancestor's discovery and work in the June 24, 1893 issue of The Gardeners' Chronicle, a former British horticulture periodical.

He had written: "A few years ago Miss Joaquim, a lady residing in Singapore, well-known for her success as a horticulturist, succeeded in crossing Vanda Hookeriana, Rchb.f., and V.teres."

He repeated this in a 1894 speech given to the Linnean Society of London in England, the world's oldest active biological society.

  • Award-winning horticulturist

  • Apart from cross-breeding Singapore's national flower, the late Agnes Joaquim (above) was a decorated horticulturist with about 70 top awards in the field.

    These were for cultivating varied specimens such as radishes, custard apples, dahlias and begonias in Singapore between 1881 and 1899.

    According to Singapore's National Flower And The Legacy Of Agnes And Ridley, a book by Harold Johnson and Nadia Wright, the family had a strong interest in plants.

    The late Miss Joaquim's father, Parsick Joaquim, served on the committee of the Agri-Horticultural Gardens and the board of the Botanic Gardens.

    Her mother, Urelia Zechariah, won prizes during annual flower shows in the 1880s and 1890s.

    The family lived on a 2.4ha plot of land, home to ponds and sprawling gardens, on Narcis Street in Tanjong Pagar.

    Miss Joaquim, who also did church work with the Armenian Church here, was skilled in needlework.

    She was single and died of cancer on July 2, 1899 at age 45.

    Melody Zaccheus

Ms Locke, who works in marketing and advertising, had been preparing a citation for her ancestor for her induction into the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations' hall of fame last year, when she discovered widespread discrepancies in public agencies' accounts of her work.

Ms Locke said she resolved to correct the mistruths following a trip to the Singapore Botanic Gardens' Heritage Museum in March, with relatives visiting from England.

There, the family were shocked to find that the display text merely stated that the plant originated in Miss Joaquim's garden.

"It's not right that the one place the plant was taken to was not upholding her," said Ms Locke.

She added: "For over 80 years, scientists believed and upheld her achievement. Now, revisionist scientists who have no proof, and just a point of view, are writing away her achievement. This is tragic. She was a woman who dedicated her life to her family, church and garden."

Having verified Ms Locke's research with NParks, NHB updated its Roots.sg heritage portal and its official website last month, changing the word "discovered" to "bred" on its websites.

A spokesman said the changes were made to "better reflect Ms Agnes Joaquim's contributions, as stated in H.N. Ridley's account".

Dr Nigel Taylor, group director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, said NParks adopts the account by Sir Ridley, who credited Miss Joaquim for successfully breeding the hybrid.

Dr Taylor added that in response to recent feedback, NParks will now be "presenting this position more clearly by incorporating Ridley's account from The Gardeners' Chronicle in our interpretive boards and webpages".

Miss Joaquim had likely been encouraged by her brother Joe Joaquim - a prominent lawyer, horticulturist and member of the Botanic Gardens Committee - to bring the plant to Sir Ridley.

Miss Joaquim died of cancer at the age of 45 in 1899.

Ms Locke and her relatives hope her achievement in creating the flower will be formally recognised "across all relevant government bodies and their media portals".

Noting that the write-ups on NHB and NParks' platforms have since been standardised, she said she hopes those of the rest, including the Ministry of Education, will follow suit.

Ms Locke said: "(This is) so the history and heritage of Agnes' achievement and the prestige and wealth it has brought Singapore is preserved for posterity, as befits a national icon."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Vanda Miss Joaquim's namesake gets official credit as creator'. Print Edition | Subscribe