An orchid plant in the Singapore Botanic Gardens could well be the largest and oldest in the world, staff at the newly minted Unesco World Heritage Site have discovered.
The tiger orchid is about 5m in diameter and has been growing in the same spot at the intersection of two paths, near the Curtain of Roots Walk, in the Gardens for the past 154 years. Going by research by the Gardens' staff, no other orchid has been found anywhere else which is as old or as large.
The Gardens' director, Dr Nigel Taylor, uncovered the plant's astonishing history when he dug into archival material for the site's Unesco bid. "In a guide produced for the Gardens in 1927... I came across a reference to a tiger orchid planted by Lawrence Niven in 1861," he said.
Niven was hired as the Gardens' manager in 1860, a year after the Agri-Horticultural Society bought a plot of land to set up the green oasis.
He spent 15 years developing the Gardens and was responsible for laying out its curving roads and paths, creating the band parade area and excavating the Swan Lake.
Dr Taylor said that while the 1927 reference by itself could be questioned, photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries showed the orchid growing larger in the same place specified in the guide.
"I also checked with people like Dr Tan Wee Kiat, who was the Gardens' director in the late 1980s, and he told me the orchid was always growing at that spot. It must also be very old, just by its sheer size," he added.
Dr Taylor said another large tiger orchid growing on one of the Gardens' heritage trees is believed to be its daughter.
Tiger orchids, which are native to Singapore, were believed to have become extinct here due to habitat loss. In 1999, the Botanic Gardens reintroduced the plant to the island using specimens from Malaysia.
Dr Taylor said the Gardens' molecular laboratory will run tests to determine whether the two on its grounds are genetically different from the others in Singapore. "That would lend scientific support to the historical research," he said.
He added: "Given that Singapore and the Botanic Gardens are synonymous with orchids, the fact that we have the oldest living specimen is very special."