This year’s ANZA Black Tie Ball centres on Singapore’s ever-recognisable national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid. We find out how this unique bloom became synonymous with the Lion City.

Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim.

On 15 April 1981, exactly 34 years ago, the Vanda Miss Joaquim – more commonly known now as the Singapore Orchid – was officially designated as Singapore’s national flower. But what’s the story behind this flower, and how did it find itself attached to Singapore’s national identity?

Vanda Miss Who?

The Vanda Miss Joaquim has been known as such since the late 1800s. The first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Henry Nicholas Ridley, wrote about the flower in The Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1893, where he noted: ‘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. Unfortunately no record was kept as to which was used as the male.’

The result was a new variety of orchid that took on the name of its founder, Agnes Joaquim (1854–99), originally from Armenia. It has been contested whether Joaquim bred the flower herself, or if it occurred naturally and Joaquim was the one to discover it in her garden 1893.

Abundant yet unique

The Vanda Miss Joaquim is the first Singapore orchid hybrid to be officially registered. But what makes this orchid variety so special?

A free-flowering orchid, the Singapore Orchid blooms throughout the year in Singapore’s climate, and can grow up to 12 flowers on a single inflorescence.

As Ridley noted in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, the orchid’s two petals and top sepals are a rosy violet, while the lateral sepals are pale mauve. The flowers tend to be around five centimetres across and six centimetres tall. The lip, which extends out like a fan, becomes an orange colour in its centre and is spotted in dark purple.

A Vanda Janet Kaneali $1 Singapore banknote, issued in 1967.

A true national icon

Though cuttings from the original plant led to millions of the Vanda Miss Joaquim blooming around the world, the orchid quickly became one of the most common flowering plants in Singapore.

It might surprise those who consider flowers to be nothing more than table ornaments to learn just how serious the business of flowers is. In April 1981, after many years of deliberation, the Vanda Miss Joaquim hybrid orchid was chosen by Minister of  Culture at the time, S. Dhanabalan, out of 40 contenders, to be Singapore’s official national flower.

By the late 1960s and 1970s the orchid had become synonymous with Singapore, and a series of Singapore banknotes were released, each bearing a different variation of the orchid.

Nowadays, the Singapore Orchid can be found across the island, and most prominently within the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Did you know?

Singapore is the only country in the world to have a hybrid as its national flower. Many places in Singapore are named after the flower, such as Vanda Road (Bukit Timah) and Vanda Miss Joaquim Park (off Yan Kit Road, near Tanjong Pagar Plaza).