Singapore’s national flower is the orchid, Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim (formerly Vanda Miss Joaquim).
Selected as the national flower in 1981, the orchid was chosen from 40 other blooms, of which 30 were orchids. The National Orchid Garden website says there are several varieties of Vanda Miss Joaquim with ‘Agnes’ chosen for its “vibrant colours, hardiness and resilience – qualities that reflect the Singapore spirit”.
It became the symbol of the Malay Orchid Society in 1957, appears on Singapore’s currency and stamps, and is widely grown on the peninsula, in The Philippines and Hawaii.
The orchid was bred by Agnes Joaquim, a well-known horticulturalist in Singapore, who crossed Vanda Hookeriana and V. teres, “two plants cultivated in almost every garden in Singapore”, according to an 1893 article by H N Ridley (first director of Singapore Botanic Gardens), which described the plant for readers of The Gardeners’ Chronicle. Read the full article here. P. Miss Joaquim is recognised as the first hybrid orchid created in Singapore.
Miss Joaquim (1854-99) was a second-generation Singaporean of Armenian descent (her Armenian name was Ashkhen Hovakimian) and a keen gardener. Read more about her life here.
This article also mentions later aspersions cast on the claim that she bred the orchid rather than simply discovering a natural hybrid. An excellent post about the plant at Singapore Infopedia notes that in March 2016, Linda Locke, a great-great-grandniece of Miss Joaquim, began approaching public agencies with research proving that V. Miss Joaquim had been bred by her forebear. Later in 2016, the National Parks Board and the National Heritage Board officially recognised Miss Joaquim as the breeder.
V. Miss Joaquim was displayed publicly in Europe for the first time at the Royal Horticultural Society show in London in 1897. The RHS awarded a First Class Certificate to Trevor Lawrence, the owner of the plant, which had been grown by his gardener W H White from a cutting sent by Mr Ridley. In 1898, the orchid also gained a Cultural Commendation Certificate.
The flower debuted in Singapore at the annual Flower Show in April 1899, where Miss Joaquim won first prize for “rarest orchid”.
Before World War 2, V. Miss Joaquim was the mainstay of Singapore’s cut-flower exports and in 1938 a crate of the orchids was flown to Amsterdam for Queen Wilhelmina’s 40th Jubilee.