What’s in an Orchid

“As the flower most associated with hybrids, the orchid is also a symbol of our multi-cultural heritage. It is representative of the harmony among our ethnic communities, as well as with our many foreign visitors,” said Mr Mah Bow Tan about our national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, at the official opening of the Singapore Orchid Show in 2006.

The Vanda Miss Joaquim – A Short History

When Miss Agnes Joaquim, daughter of an Armenian merchant in Singapore, discovered the Vanda Miss Joaquim in her garden in 1893, it must not have occurred to her what a nation-wide phenomenon this humble but striking specimen would eventually become.

Singapore, as a tropical country with suitable climate for orchid cultivation, is home to a great variety of orchids. On 15 April 1981, the Vanda Miss Joaquim was proclaimed as Singapore’s national flower from among 40 contenders including some 30 orchids. This hybrid of two orchids, the Vanda teres and the Vanda hookerana, was deemed particularly apt due to its ability to bloom throughout the year. Hardy and resilient, it is indeed an accurate reflection of our young nation’s continuous thirst for progress and excellence in all aspects of development.

The Wonders of Orchids
With its exotic colours, exquisitely shaped petals, velvety surfaces and slender stems, the orchid looks deceptively fragile. People often give it less credit than it deserves, much like how beautiful girls are often assumed to be delicate and in need of attention. They couldn’t be further from the truth. While our hot and humid weather is detrimental for many flowering plants, orchids thrive well in it. With the right amount of water and sunlight, they will grow great both indoors and outdoors.

Did you know that orchids have existed since the age of the dinosaurs? Evolution caused many plants and beasts to go extinct, but the orchid survived and flourished. There are currently about 35,000 species of orchids in the world, and they populate every continent except Antartica. They grow in a large variety of environments, including rainforests, grasslands and even mountains and marshlands!

Throughout the centuries, orchids are admired by mankind, commoners and royalties alike. Apart from their hardiness, they are also popular symbols of luxury, beauty and love. To the ancient Greeks, orchids represented virility. In fact, the word “Orchid” is derived from the Greek word “orchis”, which means testicle. The Chinese refer to it as “the plant of the king’s fragrance”, and make medicinal tea out of it as certain species of Orchids are said to induce peaceful sleep, relieve indigestion and lower blood pressure amongst others. In the Middle Ages, orchids were used in love potions as they were found to have aphrodisiac properties.

Sadly, in the 19th century, many orchids had become endangered or extinct due to human greed. In 1818, William Cattley became the first person to bloom an orchid. Inspired by his success, many botanists and orchid collectors raided the forests of millions of orchids in hopes of growing their own orchid nurseries. An orchid could be sold for as much as thousands of dollars. This unfortunate practice has been banned, and species are now bred and cultivated specifically for sale instead of taken from the wild.

Growing Orchids

Orchids are now easily affordable and available in Singapore. This plant makes great company with its vivid colours and fanciful shapes. With these regal beauties in your garden or inside your home, you don’t need paintings or sculptures to titivate your home.

If you are new to orchid growing, do carry out some research before embarking on collecting orchids. Caring for orchids may not be rocket science, but the plants do need appropriate care and attention.

Speak to friends who rear orchids. Read up in the library and on the internet. Orchid Geeks (http://www.orchidgeeks.com) is a great resource about orchids where you can interact with other orchid lovers and ask them for advice, while Green Culture Singapore (http://greenculturesg.com) unites nature lovers and gardening fanatics in Singapore.

For starters, the Dendrobium orchid is a favourite among Singaporeans, especially beginners. These dark purple orchids are a common sight in markets, florists and supermarkets where they are often sold as cut flowers. Even without roots, they are long-lasting and can stay healthy and alive for weeks if well-taken care of. This species is tolerant of a wide range of conditions, making them suitable indoor plants for high-rise apartments.

When you visit the orchid nursery, do ask the seller plenty of questions because the requirements of different orchid species can differ. Questions you should ask include: How much water to give and how often should I water my orchid? How much light is required? How much fertiliser should I add? What are some pests it is prone to infection from and how do you protect it? As your orchid grows, it will also need re-potting, which you should be prepared for in the near future. Do describe your home environment to the seller so that you can receive adequate advice on the type of species you should choose and how to care for it.

– This article first appeared in a lifestyle magazine as a National Day special