First woman in the world to breed a hybrid orchid
Agnes Joaquim was born in Singapore in 1854, the second child and eldest daughter of a prominent and respected Armenian family. Her family had a strong tradition of interest in horticulture. Her father, merchant Parsick Joaquim, sat on the board of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and her mother Urelia was a keen gardener who regularly won prizes at flower shows. Agnes and some of her siblings were also prize-winning cultivators of flowers.
Agnes’ speciality was breeding orchids. In early 1893, she brought a plant to Henry Ridley, the director of the Botanic Gardens. She had crossed Burmese Vanda teres with the Malayan Vanda hookeriana. Ridley, an experienced botanist, was recognised in both Singapore and Britain as a leading expert on orchids. After carefully examining the plant, he sent a detailed description of it to the authoritative Gardeners' Chronicle, which published the report about Vanda Miss Joaquim on 24 June 1893, along with details of two other new hybrids
Ridley wrote: “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, two plants cultivated in almost every garden in Singapore. The result has now appeared in the form of a very beautiful plant, quite intermediate between the two species and as I cannot find any record of this cross having been made before, I describe it herewith.”
Ridley also sent cuttings to his friend Sir Trevor Lawrence, who was a leading grower of orchids in Britain. Sir Trevor nurtured the plant and in 1897 he exhibited the Vanda Miss Joaquim at the Royal Horticultural Show in London. It was greatly admired and won a First Class Certificate. The orchid was not exhibited in Singapore until the 1899 Singapore Flower where it won the first prize. Agnes, suffering from cancer, died soon after. She had lived just long enough to see the orchid named after her win the top prize and to be publicly recognised as its creator.
Over the years there has been controversy as to whether Agnes had deliberately bred the orchid or simply discovered a chance hybrid in her garden. Various experts argued that it must have been the latter. In researching the Armenian community in Singapore for a book, Nadia Wright came across Ridley’s report and was puzzled as to why there was doubt about Vanda Miss Joaquim having been bred by Agnes.
She delved further into the matter. In an article in 2004 in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Orchid Review, and in more detail in a book published in 2008, she presented clear evidence that Agnes created the hybrid orchid. She wrote in the article: “Perhaps it is too hard for some experts to concede that a woman, and one lacking twentieth century techniques at that, could have produced the orchid through deliberate hybridisation.”
Agnes’ great-niece Hazel Locke has deep memories of the pride her father showed in his aunt’s achievement: “When I was a schoolgirl in the 1930s, every time my father and I came across flower shops displaying the Vanda Joachim orchid, he would proudly declare (crossing his fingers at the same time) that his aunt had crossed two plants and the result was that orchid.”
The Vanda Miss Joaquim was chosen in 1981 as Singapore's national flower.