Orchid diplomacy

QUEEN Elizabeth II has one, as does Princess Diana. Nelson Mandela's wears a bright yellow hue, with a blush of red. Amitabh Bachchan's is gangly and purple, while Shah Rukh Khan's is an attractive red-orange beauty.

No, we are not talking about the cars in the garages of these famous people, for surely the Queen has more than one and it'd be quite a sight to see Big B drive around in a purple one. We refer here to the orchids named after these icons by Singapore, either in honour of their visit to the island or as a gesture of goodwill and friendship.

If you visit the VIP section of the National Orchid Garden (NOG), nestled inside the splendid Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), you'll find orchids named after more than 100 celebrities, dignitaries and visiting heads of states. Orchids are synonymous with Singapore, and what better way to forge diplomatic friendships than, well, saying it with a flower.

The tradition of naming an orchid after a VIP began in 1956, when a flower was named after Lady Anne Black, the wife of a former governor of Singapore. The flower was called Aranthera Anne Black. Today, in the VIP section of the NOG, you can see orchids named after former India prime minister Indira Gandhi, Japanese emperor Akihito, former Philippines president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, former US first lady Laura Bush, pop star Ricky Martin, golfer Annika Sorenstam, chimp champion Jane Goodall and even some Nobel laureates. All the orchids selected for the naming are new hybrids, which are grown as a part of the NOG's orchid-breeding programme.

The National Parks Board (NParks), that manages the Botanic Gardens, says that the hybrids from the NOG's breeding programme are used to promote goodwill and foster closer ties between nations.

NParks adviser and CEO of Gardens by the Bay, Kiat W. Tan believes that with Singapore's long-standing association with orchids, it is the most apt gesture of friendship. He says: "Apart from the fact that our national flower is an orchid, Singapore has also welcomed many important guests including state dignitaries and people who have made significant contributions in their respective fields by naming our finest orchid hybrids after them."

It is a gesture of friendship that is diplomatically sound and goes a long way in building bilateral ties. When Mrs Laura Bush was presented the bouquet of orchids named after her in 2003, she had said: "Oh, that's beautiful. I can't imagine anything nicer than having an orchid named for yourself." Her husband, then US president George W. Bush, would have looked at the beautiful Mokora Laura Bush, a yellow flower speckled with pale orange-brown spots, taking in its sweet fragrance, and would have had only friendship in his mind for Singapore from then on.

Singapore's non-resident ambassador to Jordan K. Kesavapany says orchids play an important role when he performs his diplomatic duties. He tells tabla!: "The orchid flower has become an effective ingredient in promoting Singapore's relations with foreign countries. Many foreign dignitaries have been honoured by flowers specific to their names. Such a gesture is an everlasting token of friendship.

"I use orchids in my job as Singapore's ambassador to Jordan. For example, every year, we set up Singapore stalls that sell orchids flown in from the country. The flowers are all sold out within a few hours and that money goes to charity."

Some of the orchids named after famous Indians are Dendrobium Amitabh Bachchan, Ascocenda Shah Rukh Khan, Vanda Usha (after the wife of former Indian president, the late K.R. Narayanan), Dendrobium Neha (after former India prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's granddaughter), Dendrobium Sarasvathi Giri (after the wife of former Indian president, the late V.V. Giri) and Holttumara Indira Gandhi (after the first lady prime minister of India).

25,000 species

The orchids are believed to be the largest family of flowering plants in the world, with over 25,000 accepted species. To put that into perspective, that is twice the size of the bird species and about four times the number of mammal species. You are more likely to spot an orchid in the wild than a deer.

And they are more cosmopolitan than Shakira, found on all continents, except Antarctica. The origin of its name is just as interesting. The online etymology dictionary says the name comes from the Greek word orkhis, which literally means testicle, because of the shape of its stem.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the world's richest concentration of orchid varieties is found in the Himalayan region of Nepal. A large majority are found in the tropics of Asia, South America and Central America. Some varieties are also found above the Arctic Circle.

Remarkably, there are more than 120,000 hybrids of orchids around the world currently, with 3,000 new hybrids being added annually.

For collectors and dealers of the plant, getting the rarest of varieties is a huge passion. Some even resort to stealing as American journalist and author Susan Orlean's investigative report in 1994 for the New Yorker revealed. She later published a book, based on the investigation, called The Orchid Thief, remarking that she had seen true passion for the first time in her life.

Vanda Miss Joaquim

Owing to its equatorial climate, Singapore is home to some fantastic varieties of orchids, most of which can be found in the SBG. The Gardens also breeds a lot of hybrids as a part of its orchid breeding programme that was initiated by Prof Eric Holttum in 1928.

In fact, Vanda Miss Joaquim, Singapore's national flower, is the first registered hybrid plant from the country. Singapore also has the unique distinction of being the only nation to have a hybrid as its national flower.

Vanda Miss Joaquim though is a controversial figure in the orchid world, with its origin disputed.

The story goes that, in 1893, an Armenian lady residing in Singapore - Miss Agnes Joaquim - showed an orchid to the then director of the Botanic Gardens Henry N. Ridley. This orchid was the result of a cross between Vanda hookeriana and Vanda teres and Mr Ridley named this plant Vanda Miss Joaquim, in her honour.

The plant would soon grow in stature by winning a First Class Certificate at the London Royal Horticultural Show in 1897 and the first prize at the 1899 Flower Show in Singapore for the rarest orchid in the show.

While Mr Ridley stated in The Gardener's Chronicle (1893), "… Miss Joaquim… succeeded in crossing Vanda hookeriana Rchb. f., and V. teres…", the popular opinion is that she just found the orchid and it was the work of insect pollinators. The SBG in its January 2011 newsletter acknowledges that "opinion is still divided over the matter".

Ms Nadia Wright, co-author of the book Vanda Miss Joaquim: Singapore's National Flower & The Legacy Of Agnes & Ridley, tells tabla! that the myth of the "discovery" received so much publicity in 1981 when the orchid was chosen as Singapore's national flower that it became entrenched as factual and repeated without question.

She says: "I totally support Henry Ridley's views that Agnes Joaquim created the orchid, as he says in the authoritative Gardener's Chronicle. In a speech delivered to the Linnean Society in 1894 Ridley repeated that Vanda Miss Joaquim was an artificial hybrid and this was printed in 1896. However, Ridley's account was rejected in 1981 when Basil Johannes, an elderly relative of Agnes, alleged she had found the orchid in her garden. No other member of his family made this claim. Indeed Basil's older brother John maintained Agnes bred the orchid."

Indian interest

The NOG, inside the SBG, draws a large number of tourists who come to admire the flowers in full bloom, and are pleasantly surprised when they spot their favourite celebrity orchids. Tourists from India are one of the largest numbers of visitors to the orchid garden.

SBG deputy director (living collections) Alan Tan tells tabla! that there are about 30,000 to 40,000 visitors from India every year to the NOG. While most visitors aren't aware of VIP orchids in the garden, Mr Tan says "they love colourful orchids in general".

India too has a large species of orchids. Dr Rajkumar Kishor from the Centre for Orchid Gene Conservation of the Eastern Himalayan Region in Manipur, tells tabla!: "India is reported to have about 1,229 species under 184 genera. Due to varied agroclimatic conditions ranging from tropical to sub-alpine and alpine, orchid species growing in different parts of the country are different."

Dr Kishor will be in Singapore as a guest speaker during the 20th World Orchid Conference that will be held in the city from Nov 13 to 20 at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre in the Marina Bay area.

Like Singapore, India too has a tradition of naming orchid species and hybrids after VIPs, some of which are Dendrobium Atal Behari Vajpayee, Brassocattleya Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, Holcanthera MS Swaminathan, Hygranda TN Khoshoo and Aeridovanda Shiv Sidhu. Dr Kishor synthesised and registered the last three "in honour of the Indian scientists Prof M.S. Swaminathan, Dr T.N. Khoshoo and the former governor of Manipur Dr S.S. Sidhu".

While Singapore may have used the orchid as the perfect diplomatic tool, some are of the opinion that naming should be well-deserved as a hybrid is precious and supposed to last a lifetime.

Mr Harold Johnson, who co-authored the book Vanda Miss Joaquim with Ms Wright, points out to tabla!: "I think it is a unique way to make dignitaries remember their visit to Singapore.

However, unless they are orchids growers, most likely the orchid is quickly forgotten. In most cases, gifts to dignitaries become property of the State. Unfortunately, few of the VIP orchids make it to either the local or international market."

Ms Wright adds: "Used judiciously, such naming is a great and unique act of friendship, but over-usage can lessen the honour."

ankitav@sph.com.sg