Human Flower Project

Miss Agnes’s Big Little Secret

Singapore’s national flower, a hybrid orchid, wasn’t discovered in the wild but cultivated in secret by an Armenian woman.

Natural plants, like natural talents, usually inspire unadulterated love; human skill and its productions, on the other hand, are always tainted. The well trained singing voice, hair sprayed in place, hothouse flowers—there’s something too premeditated for simple, free enjoyment.

The distinction is especially keen with emblem flowers. In the case of Kentucky, my home state, better to choose a local weed—goldenrod, Solidago altissima —as the state flower than any one of a hundred beautiful non-natives that do well there: bearded iris, let’s say, or lilies of the valley.

imageVanda Miss Joaquim ‘Agnes’

Photo: Bill Curtis’s Orchid Page

Ng Tze Yong’s fine piece today for the Singapore Press recounts a floral detective story on this very subject—the saga of Singapore’s national flower,  Vanda Miss Joaquim, which has for 40 years been a source of mystery and controversy.

In 1931, the Malayan Orchid Review extolled this flower’s many virtues: “The Singapore-raised hybrid, Vanda Miss Joachim, is probably for us the best orchid in the world. What orchid can equal it for size, beauty of shape, beauty of colour, freedom of propagation and floribundity, taken all together?”

While Guatemala, Costa Rice and Brazil have chosen species orchids as their national flowers, Singapore’s Vanda Miss Joaquim, is a hybrid, the offspring of V. hookerana and V. teres. To cite e.e. cummings, which realm does Miss Joaquim belong to, the world of born or the world of made?

Ng Tze Yong recounts the story:

“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.”

imageMiss Agnes Joaquim; Photo: Electric News (Singapore Press)

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.”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/05 at 10:54 AM


Please be informed that except for Mrs Nadia Wright, an Armenian Nationalist, and a few growers, the theory that Miss Agnes Joaquim bred Vanda Miss Joaquim on purpose is not accepted. All orchid scientists and many knowledgeable orchid growers believe that it is a natural hybrid.

See the book Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim by Prof. C. S. Hew, Dr. Time Wing Yam and myself (Professor Emeritus of Biology, University of California, Irvine), which was published by the National University of Singapore Press, and our articles in the Malaysian Orchid Review and the Orchid Review (UK).

I hope that after you read these sources you will present a more
balanced view on your website.

Joseph Arditti

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/08 at 08:00 PM

Dear Dr. Arditti,

Thank you for this informative response. I had not realized there was so much scholarship, and evidence, to support the “natural hybrid” origin of this flower.

As a sociologist, I find fascinating that Armenian nationalism or ethnic pride may have taken shape in this way.

I very much your appreciate comments and criticisms!


Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/08 at 08:07 PM

Dear Julie:
There is not as much scholarship to support the natural orchid theory as Dr Arditti suggests. I refer you to Henry Ridley’s exact words in 1893.
‘ A few years ago, Miss Joaquim, a lady residing in Singapore, well-known for her success as a horticulturalist, succeeded in crossing Vanda Hookeriana Rchb.f., and V. teres…’ Gardeners’ Chronicle 24 June 1893 p.740. This is unambiguous.
For further discussion on the origins of the orchid, see ‘Respected Citizens: the History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia’ and my articles in the Malayan Orchid Review vol. 34/200 and The Orchid Review ( Royal Horticultural Society)  September 2004
For reasons known only to himself, Dr Arditti now portrays me as an Armenian Nationalist - whatever that might be. It seems he will resort to any tactic to deflect from his failure to refute Ridley’s words.
For my rebuttal of his criticisms, please look at my website

PS I am curious why you think she bred it in secret, then hid it inside bamboo. Nadia Wright

Posted by nadia wright on 08/13 at 04:30 AM

This was amusing for a while but has lost its novelty since Ms. Wright is now repeating herself. No one is attacking Ridley. I am only doing what scientists usually do which is to question each other all the time. And, there is plenty of scientific (even if not nationalistic) evidence that Vanda Miss Joaquim is a natural hybrid.
No matter, this has now run its course. My nearly half a century experience in academic life in a major university suggests that the arguments will soon die out and will be forgotten.  Ms. Wright who has now had more than her 15 minutes of fame will also be forgotten. Her web site is ephemeral and little more than a marketing tool for her self published magnum opus. When, sometime in the future, people will want to know about Vanda Miss Joaquim they will read our book and a forthcoming review article which will be published in an American peer reviewed publication because my collegaues and I are well known orchid authorities. Ms Wright is not, even if her nationalist writings may have earned her fame within the Armenian community and recognition by two hobby growers in Singapore.
Both our book and the peer reviewed publication can be found in the libraries of many major universities in the US and elsewhere. These libraries will most probably not acquire Ms Wright’s magnum opus because libraries do not usually purchase books which are self published or published by vanity presses. Such books do not command academic and scholarly respect and credibility since the assumption is that if they were worthwile, they would have been published by a major and reputable peer reviewed publisher. A few libraries may recieve Ms. Wright’s book as gifts, but no one will think to look for information about an orchid in an Armenian nationalist tract. Those interested in orchids will look for publications by well known orchid experts and other scientists. And sadly for Ms Wright, they all agree with us. The Orchid Review is found in some libraries and so is the Malayan Orchid Review, but we have effectively refuted the agenda driven claims Ms Wright’s made in these publications. Thus, the end result of all this will be that despite Ms. Wright’s fleeting moment of fame, our view will prevail in the long run and scientists and knowledgeable growers will still believe, as they should on the basis of good orchid science, that Vanda Miss Joaquim is a natural hybrid.
Ms Wright’s “new research” is not new and she has not discovered any new facts. She is simply rehashing what has been in the literature for a long time and giving is a new twist which is designed to serve her nationalist agenda.
And a final point: The Armenian people have many figures they and other nationalities can and should be proud of [three that come easily to mind in an airport lounge are American author and New York Drama Critics Circle award laureate William Saroyan, Soviet era composer Aram Khachaturian, American plant physiologist Abraham D.Krikorian, and American physician Dr. Raymond Damadian of magnetic reasonance imaging (MRI) fame, but there are many more). They do not need a heroine contrived and manufactured by by Ms Wright. Miss Agnes Joaquim found the orchid which bears her name and appreciated its value. That is a major contribution by itself. A lesser person would have ignored an isolated plant blooming in a bamboo clump.
The last word should be by Ms Wright. I will no longer reply to her polemics. It is no longer fun to do so because what she claims has been refuted very effectively several times over. And, as I said, true and innovative scholarship would have found its way into peer reviewed journals and books which would have made it unecessary for Ms. Wright to publish her book herself and reply to ours on her website.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/15 at 09:59 PM

Dear Julie:
On historical and scientific grounds Professor Arditti’s story of the orchid’s discovery is indefensible. He claims ‘the plant was first spotted by Miss Agnes Joaquim in her garden in 1893 or a few years (but it is not know [sic] how many) before that. Dr. Teoh described the event in his book:  “One morning while Agnes was loitering alone in the garden she came across a new orchid flower nestled in a clump of bamboo.…Agnes could not contain her excitement. Straightaway she took it to the Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.” - Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim,  Hew, Yam and Arditti p.41

Where is the evidence she was ‘loitering’ or ‘alone’, that it was ‘morning’, that she ‘could not contain her excitement’, and that she immediately took the plant to Ridley?

There is none. This story is imaginary but Arditti accepts it as factual. Because I have challenged this tale, and instead believe Henry Ridley who unambiguously stated that Agnes had bred the orchid, Arditti has unleashed a torrent of unjustifiable personal attacks on me and my work. Me thinks he doth protest too much.

Posted by nadia wright on 08/16 at 06:28 PM

How good is the Arditti et al book?  The author is responsible for the book’s contents.  Read page 35.  Plagerism is not giving credit to an author who is directly or indirectly quoted; look at line two of the text.  Find “foundling” and “dowager” in the dictionary; use an on-line converter to change the pounds to grams; locate “Teoh 1999” and find the words replaced by ellipsis in the quotation from Thornton. There is a closing quotation mark after ‘flowers]’; where does the quotation begin?  Is this acceptable writing?  Who takes responsibility?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/17 at 02:34 AM

I was hoping to read some interesting comments but instead I read arguments back and forth. Believe what you want about the story and put your ideas out there. Don’t knock others opinions and knowledge. Science is about theories because we don’t know the exact. We were not there to witness it. So instead of arguing about it why don’t you just study and investigate the story. How can we ever evolve to live in a great world when intelligent people are bringing each other down. Repsect eachother for their work. Thank you.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/21 at 12:52 AM

Thank you for commenting.  Sorry for the late reply. I was traveling. Comments here tend to be short. There is ample literature you can read for details (see the Malayan Orchid Review and the Orchid Review for the last few years). Also, a very detailed discussion by Prof. C. S. Hew and myself is forthcoming in a peer reviewed publication.  You should be able to find there what you are looking for.
Mr. Johnson is one of the two hobby growers who supports Ms. Wright’s view. If he will follow his own advice and look in a dictionary he may learn how to spell “plagerism” (sic).
Joseph Arditti

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/05 at 03:08 AM

A few years ago,I benefitted enormously from the detailed historical research Nadia conducted on Armenian families in the Far East. She was painstaking and committed to the details.

Professor Arditi should defend his point of view, without the cavalier machismo and arrogant attack on Nadia as a person and researcher. I cared more about her research than I ever will about orchids so it’s the person benefitting from the research who is able to judge and comment. I wouldn’t care if Arditti wrote and had peer-reviewed 100 books on’s immaterial to me.

So Professor Arditi, you would enhance your position in academia with a due amount of respect in the way you choose to refer to Mrs. Wright and good manners behooves you to veer away from personal attacks.

Nadia stands tall above you in her conduct.

Nadia: your points are well-taken. Ms. Joaquim has her place in history in relation to the orchid…found or bred. Professor Arditi and co. hardly have that stature.


Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/13 at 10:49 AM

Joy, I was glad to learn that you benefitted from Ms Wright books and saddened to learn that you care less about orchids and than her writings. I agree that “Ms. Agnes Joaquin has her place in history in relation to history . . . ,” but found not bred.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/13 at 03:26 PM

Typo sorry. Should be “in relation to the orchids”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/13 at 03:27 PM

From the dictionary:
1. The source of the quote on line 2 is obvious from the text and the context of the statement.
2. “Plagerism” is not a word. The correct spelling is “plagiarism.”
3. “Foundling,” “a child found without a parent or caretaker.” This is what Vanda Miss Joaquim is at least figuratively.
4. “Dowager,” “an elderly woman of stately dignity, esp. one of elevated social position: a wealthy dowager.” One can think (also figuratively) of Vanda Miss Joaquim as being just that.
5. From
“The pound is the name of a number of units of mass, all in the range of 300 to 600 grams. Most commonly, it refers to the avoirdupois pound (454 g), divided into 16 avoirdupois ounces. . . 453.54 grams” often rounded off to 0.45 kg, 454.5g or 450 g. Thus, 4000x454.5=1,818,000 g.
5. Teoh,  1999 is on p. 196
6. Thornton is on page 197.
7. The question about the quotation marks after ‘flowers]’is well taken.
8. Mr. Johnson asnwered on line 1 of his note the   question about responsibilty he posed on lines nes 7 and 8.

I am sorry it took so long to answer Mr. Johnson’s questions.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/15 at 01:50 AM
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