The debate

Amassia Publishing



Background to the debate

The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim
by Nadia Wright  Malayan Orchid Review  vol 34/2000

My reply to Hew, Yam and Arditti’s criticism of my 2000 article
‘The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim’ 

A re-examination of the origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim 
by Nadia Wright
Orchid Review September-October 2004.

My reply to  Hew and Arditti’s  criticism of the 2004 article

My reply to Yam, Arditti and Hew’s ‘The Origin of Vanda Miss Joaquim 
How did Vanda Miss Joaquim really originate?  
(Malayan Orchid Review, vol.38/2004)


Ridley H. N. 1893 ‘New and Noteworthy Plants: Vanda Miss Joaquim’,
Gardeners' Chronicle 24 June, p. 740.


A re-examination of the origins
of Vanda Miss Joaquim

Nadia H. Wright discusses differing views on the origin of this famous hybrid


This article appeared in the Orchid Review (The Royal Horticultural Society) vol. 112,
no. 1259 Sept -Oct 2004, pp. 292-8 and is reprinted here with kind permission of the editor.

Thank you to Joyce Stewart for kind permission to reproduce her photographs.


A flower of Vanda Miss Joaquim (Photo: Joyce Stewart)

While researching the history of the Armenian community in Singapore, I read that Singapore's national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, had been discovered by an Armenian - Miss Agnes Joaquim. Apparently, one morning in 1893 she had found the orchid growing in a clump of bamboo in her garden. Ever the sceptic, I decided to see if this could be verified, and to my astonishment, an entirely different story unfolded.

But first, who was this lady? Ashkhen Hovakimian or as she is better known, Agnes Joaquim, was born in Singapore on 7 April 1854, the second of Parsick and Urelia Joaquim's 11 children. Parsick died unexpectedly in 1872 and Agnes, as the eldest daughter, no doubt spent much of her time helping her mother to raise the younger children.

Urelia was a very keen gardener, an interest soon picked up by Agnes, her brother Joe and younger sister Sarah. From 1881 onwards, they collected prizes for their flowers, fruit, vegetables and floral arrangements in the annual flower shows, with Agnes usually winning the most prizes. She excelled in the 1890s, collecting 10 firsts and two seconds in 1893, followed by 10 firsts and five seconds in 1894, and seven firsts and eight seconds in 1895. Among Agnes's awards in 1898 was the first prize for orchids, but her crowning success occurred the following year.

 With its splendid exhibition of numerous and gorgeous orchids, the 1899 Singapore Flower Show was lauded as the best for years. The highlight was Agnes’s orchid which, the Straits Times noted, was named after Miss Joaquim and raised by her. Agnes had lived just long enough to see her orchid win first prize for the rarest orchid, and be publicly recognised for her achievement. Suffering from cancer, she died on 2 July 1899.

 The orchid's debut

Agnes had produced her orchid by crossing the Burmese Vanda teres with the Malayan Vanda hookeriana. In early 1893, she showed the plant to Henry Ridley, the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. After carefully examining the hybrid and having it sketched, Ridley sent a detailed description, emphasising its intermediate floral characteristics, to the Gardeners' Chronicle. This authoritative journal published the details on 24 June 1893, along with those of two other new hybrids.

Ridley also dispatched cuttings to his friend Sir Trevor Lawrence, one of Britain's leading orchidists. Under the eye of Sir Trevor's orchid grower, Vanda Miss Joaquim was nurtured, flowering for the first time in Europe in June 1897. Displayed to an admiring public at the Royal Horticultural Show in London, it won great acclaim and a First Class Certificate.

The orchid had made its debut in London two years before it was shown in Singapore ‑ perhaps because Sir Trevor employed one of the foremost orchid growers in England, and possessed the best of horticultural facilities. But while in England, Vanda Miss Joaquim was to remain a prized rarity in private collections, in Singapore it spread like wildfire. Cuttings from that one plant led to the millions of Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids that were to bloom in Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Hawaii, the Philippines and other tropical habitats.

The controversy

In the 1890s, Agnes was acknowledged as having obtained the orchid through hybridisation, but subsequently some have stripped that honour from her. Aspersions were first cast in 1931 when the Straits Times announced that a hybrid orchid had been produced in Singapore using the new technique of germinating seeds in a sterile culture. This new orchid was described as the second hybrid to be produced in Singapore or, if Vanda Miss Joaquim had arisen naturally, the first (Straits Times, 4 August 1931).

Writing in 1949, eminent orchid grower John Laycock pondered whether the cross pollination had been done by Agnes or was an act of nature, but in light of Agnes's horticultural reputation and Ridley's comments, he felt the odds were in Agnes's favour.

A decade later, orchid expert Yeoh Bok Choon (1959) seemed ambivalent about the orchid's origins but in 1963, he dismissed the possibility that the hybrid had arisen by itself as 'most ungallant' (Yeoh, 1963a). Whereas James Rentoul (1982) stated the orchid was named after the ‘originator of the cross‑pollination and raiser of the seeds’, How Yee Peng claimed the flower was a natural hybrid (Chong, 1981). This view became prevalent after the publication of Teoh Eng Soon's A Joy Forever, in which he imaginatively reconstructed Agnes's 'discovery' of the orchid. (See later).

Other writers began to refer to the orchid as having been 'found' or 'discovered' in Agnes's garden, although a new twist appeared in 1995 when Merle Reinikka said the orchid was 'obtained by a grower of Singapore in 1893 and named for his daughter.'  Hew Choy Sin, Yam Tim Wing and Joseph Arditti (2002) initially asserted that Vanda Miss Joaquim was 'a foundling', a 'chance hybrid', but later admitted that it was impossible to 'completely eliminate the possibility' that Agnes did cross the orchid. 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.

The record must be set straight, and the case that Agnes merely 'discovered' the orchid in her garden dismissed. To do so, I will return to Ridley's description and then counter the objections raised by the disbelievers.

Henry Ridley's 1893 statement that Agnes had bred the orchid is unambiguous. After examining the orchid, he 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. Unfortunately, no record was kept as to which was used as the male. The result bas 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.'

There is no reason to question Ridley's veracity, nor Agnes's, for one impacts on the other. Ridley must have discussed the origins of the plant with Agnes. Given her Christian upbringing and known piety, it is extremely unlikely that she would have invented the story of having bred her orchid. Neither she nor her prominent brother Joe, a leading Singapore lawyer and municipal commissioner, would have allowed untruths about the orchid's origins to be published.

Had Agnes discovered the orchid growing in her garden, Ridley would have said ‑ he himself had collected and catalogued many natural hybrids and this would have been one more. However, Ridley made no suggestion of a chance discovery, or hinted at a foundling. Instead, he clearly stated that Agnes had crossed the two parent orchids and furthermore, that he had found no record of anyone else having already made this cross.

Britain's leading contemporary horticultural journals said the orchid was 'a hybrid raised at Singapore' and did not question the fact that Agnes had made the cross herself (Rolfe, 1893a, 1893b, 1898). Indeed, Robert Rolfe, the editor of The Orchid Review, had no qualms about including Vanda Miss Joaquim among the 106 cultivated hybrids that first flowered in 1893, rather than listing it among the five natural hybrids. Most conclusively, when Agnes exhibited the orchid at the 1899 Flower Show, the Singapore Free Press stated that Agnes had showed a hybrid which 'she has, after repeated trials, succeeded in cultivating' (12 April 1899).

Miss Agnes Joaquim. The only known photograph, which first appeared in Respected Citizens;
the history of Armenians in
Singapore and Malaysia

In a recent work on Vanda Miss Joaquim, Hew, Yam and Arditti (2002) suggested that the hybrid was the result of spontaneous pollination by the carpenter bee. However, Teoh (1998) has pointed out that natural hybrids are 'distinctly uncommon', as insect pollinators tend to remain faithful to their particular orchid species. Bearing this in mind, one wonders also, if the parent orchids, being comparatively new to Singapore would have already found new pollinators. The fact that there have never been reported findings of other naturally occurring plants of Vanda Miss Joaquim in Singapore would indicate that natural fertilisation was most unlikely.

That Agnes showed her orchid to Henry Ridley is mistakenly interpreted by some as proof that she did not breed it (if she had, they reason, she would have known it was a hybrid). But there were sound reasons for her action. First, she needed to know if any other person had earlier made the same cross. Ridley, who was the foremost authority on orchids in Singapore and recognised in Britain as an expert on orchids, was able to assure her that no one had. Secondly, she needed to have it described in appropriate botanical terminology. Ridley, an experienced botanist with learned papers on orchids to his credit, was the obvious person for Agnes to entrust this task to (Salisbury 1957). Finally she needed a figure with contacts and respect in the orchid fraternity to ensure this description was appropriately published. Who better for her to approach than Henry Ridley? His presence in Singapore was indeed most fortuitous for Agnes.

Besides, in taking her orchid to a respected authority, Agnes was following accepted precedents. None other than pioneer hybridist John Dominy had taken his hybrid to John Lindley for verification, while in 1869 he took his Paphiopedilum to leading orchidist Heinrich Reichenbach who named it and introduced it to the orchid world (Arditti, 1992).

Agnes's failure to keep records has indicated to some that she had not bred her hybrid. But Ridley's wording was that Agnes had not kept a record 'as to which was used as the male', implying she did keep some records. It must be pointed out that John Dominy had not kept close records of his first hybrid, and Robert Rolfe bemoaned the fact that other hybridists did not always keep clear records of parentage (Rolfe and Hurst, 1909).

Agnes also had ready access to the parent plants as her brother Joe, a keen grower of orchids, cultivated prize collections of Vanda teres and Vanda hookeriana. He had won first prize at the 1881 Flower Show for his rare and beautiful Vanda teres, while in 1885, his Vanda teres again won first prize for the best orchid. The only orchid shown, it was described as 'a very rare variety and about the only one in Singapore now in blossom' (Straits Times, 30 July 1885). This does appear to contradict Ridley's description of it as a common orchid. However recent research by Yam Tim Wing, (1999) suggests Agnes used the more common Vanda teres var. aurorea.

Some experts have argued that Agnes lacked the technical equipment and knowledge to have reared her hybrid. They felt that even if Agnes had been able to make the cross, it would have been very difficult for her to have germinated the seeds without using the asymbiotic flask culture technique, pioneered by Lewis Knudson in the 1920s. Difficult yes, but impossible no, as the increasing production of hybrid orchids beginning with John Dominy's Calanthe Dominyi in 1856 showed. Dominy himself raised some 25 more hybrids, while in 1892 more than 64 new hybrids flowered in Britain. Vanda Miss Joaquim itself was 'one of nine new hybrids written up in The Orchid Review of August 1893 (where it was described as 'a cross effected by a lady resident in Singapore.'). Thus, the production of Agnes's orchid is not anomalous ‑ she was doing in Singapore what others were doing in Britain and elsewhere.

According to hearsay, Agnes had sown the seeds on to coconut dust (Yeoh, 1959). However, she could have followed John Dominy's example and used moss or blocks of wood as the growing medium. Similar methods were advocated by Benjamin Williams (1871) in his Orchid Grower's Manual and 23 years later, the same successful techniques were still being recommended (Williams, 1894).

Besides Benjamin William's manual, a wealth of other informative literature was available for those who wanted to experiment with hybridisation. Perhaps Joe had acquired some of this literature when he was studying law in England in the 1870s, or he may have subscribed to the journals.

While some claim Agnes lacked the techniques to have nurtured any seeds at all, others seem critical of the fact that she managed to raise only one seedling to flowering stage. But, given the odds, it is remarkable that she raised that one flowering plant. Perhaps her aforementioned skills in growing plants, plus luck, played a role. Hew, Yam and Arditti saw Agnes's sole plant as an indication that she had found the orchid, claiming that hybridists tend to produce many crosses.

However, their assertion is not borne out by Yeoh Bok Choon's 1963 'List of Malayan Orchid Hybrids'. Of the 72 orchid breeders listed, 31 of them had produced only one hybrid. More pertinently, as Agnes died less than three months after exhibiting her orchid, we will never know whether she was raising other seedlings or experimenting with other crosses.

In 1981, when Agnes's nephew Basil Johannes was invited to Singapore to participate in the launching of Vanda Miss Joaquim as the national flower, he said that Agnes had found the orchid in a clump of bamboo. This became the basis of Teoh Eng Soon's dramatised and imaginary account of the origins of the orchid. He wrote that 'one morning while Agnes was loitering alone in the garden she came across a new orchid flower nestled in a clump of bamboo' (Teoh, 1982). This is pure conjecture. One must ask how Teoh knew it was 'morning', that she was 'loitering' and that she was 'alone'. Surprisingly, Hew, Yam and Arditti accepted this tale as fact (p 41); in contrast, they dismissed Ridley's 1893 statement as an assumption, a misunderstanding or an example of his uncritical approach' (p 46n). I find their stand inexplicable.

Plants of Vanda Miss Joaquim growing in Singapore (Photo: Joyce Stewart)

Plants of Vanda Miss Joaquim growing in Singapore
(Photo: Joyce Stewart)

It must be remembered that in 1981, Basil was 88 years old. He was born two months after Ridley's description of the orchid was published, and was only six when Agnes died. Basil's recollections may have become a little hazy ‑ indeed he was most likely thinking of the origins of Vanda Josephine. Certainly, his other comments ‑ that Agnes had died before her sister Sarah was born, that their parents had married in Madras and that Agnes's father had been a diamond merchant, are incorrect. Furthermore, his comments carry no more weight than statements made by other relatives.

In fact, Basil's version is contested by Hazel Locke, the daughter of Basil's much older brother John. Hazel recalls that when she and her father walked past a flower shop which had Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids on display, he would cross his two forefingers and proudly tell Hazel that her great‑aunt had bred the orchid (Hazel Locke, interview). Further doubts about Basil's story are raised when one considers that Vanda Miss Joaquim needs direct sunlight and a lot of air movement (Harold Johnson, correspondence; Hew et al. p179; Teoh, (1989), thus it was most unlikely to have arisen in the shade of a bamboo clump.

We will never know why Agnes undertook to cross‑pollinate Vanda hookeriana and Vanda teres. Nevertheless, evidence supports the fact that she did breed the orchid as so clearly stated by orchid expert Henry Ridley in 1893, whereas nothing substantiates Basil Johannes' statement that she found it in a clump of bamboo. Agnes should have full credit for her achievement restored to her. Not only did she produce the first Vanda hybrid, but it appears she was the first woman in the world to breed a hybrid orchid,


Arditti, J. (1992). Fundamentals of Orchid Biology. John Wiley & Sons, New York. (p 39).

Chong Wing Hong (1981). 'National flower is an elusive lady', New Nation [Singapore] 11 May.

Hew Choy Sin, Yam Tim Wing & Joseph Arditti (2002). Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim. Singapore University Press. (pp 35, 41, 46n, 179).

Laycock, J. (1949). 'Vanda Miss Joaquim'. Philippine Orchid Review 2: 3.

Reinikka, M. A. (1995). A History of the Orchid. Timber Press, Portland. (p 72).

Rentoul, J. N. (1982). Growing Orchids; Book Three Vandas Dendrobiums and Others. Lothian Publishing Company, Melbourne. (p 35).

Ridley, H. N. (1893). Vanda Miss Joaquim [Inter V Hookeriana et V teretem proles hybrida]. The Gardeners' Chronicle 13: 740.

Rolfe, R. A (1893a). Notes. Orchid Rev. 1: 226.

Rolfe, R. A. (1893b). The Hybridist. Orchid Rev. 1: 245.

Rolfe, R. A. (1897b). Orchids at the Royal Horticultural Society. Orchid Review 5: 221‑3.

Rolfe, R. A. & C. C. Hurst (1909). The Orchid Stud Book; an enumeration of hybrid orchids of artificial origin. Frank Leslie, Kew. (pp i, viii).

Salisbury, E. J. (1957). Henry Nicholas Ridley 1855-1956. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 3: 150.

Teoh Eng Soon (1982). A Joy Forever Times Books International, Singapore. (p 28); 2nd edition (1998) Times Editions, Singapore. (p 35).

Teoh Eng Soon (1989). Orchids of Asia. Times Books International, Singapore. (p 274).

The Gardeners' Chronicle (1898), 13 August, p 123 and supplementary illustration. Vanda x Miss Joaquim.

Williams, B. S. (1871). The Orchid Grower's Manual containing brief descriptions of upwards of 800 species and varieties of orchidaceous plants, 4th edition, (p 27); 7th edition (1894) revised by Henry Williams, Victoria & Paradise Nurseries, London. (p 40).

Wright, Nadia (2000). The Origins of Vanda Miss Joaquim. Malayan Orchid Review 34: 70‑73.

Wright, Nadia (2003). Respected Citizens: the History of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia, Amassia Publishing, Melbourne.

Yam Tim Wing (1999). A Possible Solution to the Parentage Riddle of Vanda Miss Joaquim, Malayan Orchid Review 33: 53.

Yeoh Bok Choon (1959). Kinta Weed. Malayan Orchid Review 5: 8 1.

Yeoh Bok Choon (1963a). Miss Joaquim's Orchid. Malayan Orchid Review 7: 37.

Yeoh Bok Choon (1963b). List of Malayan Orchid Hybrids. Malayan Orchid Review: 5.

Correspondence with Sandra Bell (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), John Belling and John Maiorino (Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne) and Dr A. D. Krikorian (State University of New York).


My reply to  Hew and Arditti’s  criticism of the 2004 article

The Orchid Review vol. 113 number 1263, May–June 2005, contained a letter from Arditti and Hew which attempted to ridicule my contention that Agnes Joaquim crossed the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid. As I have based my argument largely upon Henry Ridley’s contemporary and unambiguous statement that Agnes crossed the orchid, they have attempted to reduce Ridley’s credibility, obfuscate the issue and evade my main points.

Arditti and Hew claimed that as Ridley did not explain why he said that Agnes crossed the two parent orchids, his statement may be an assumption. Such an explanation was unnecessary: Ridley was recording a fact. Other contributors who described new hybrids in the Gardeners’ Chronicle did not offer such explanations. See the scan.

Thee authors then tried to cast doubts upon Ridley’s specific expertise because his interests ranged ‘from agriculture to ghosts’. However, a breadth of interests shows a brilliant mind: even Hew et al saw this diverse range as a positive attribute when they had earlier lavished praise on Ridley in their book. [i]

Next Arditti and Hew attempted to dismiss Ridley’s statements as he ‘described VMJ after residing in Singapore only 4-5 years and before acquiring the expertise he had in later years’. I would suggest he already had plenty. Elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1881, Ridley was noted for the many zoological and botanical papers he penned before taking up his post in  Singapore in 1888.

When an orchid conference was held in 1886, Ridley was invited to deliver a paper on ‘The Nomenclature of Orchids’. Sir Trevor Lawrence, president of the Royal Horticultural Society, introduced Ridley as a speaker ‘who represents a very wide degree of knowledge in connection with orchids’. [ii] Indeed, Henry Ridley was the first scientist to make detailed observations on self-pollination in orchids.  In February 1888 he presented a paper on ‘Self-fertilization and Cleistogamy in Orchids’ to the Linnean Society, in which he noted that while orchids were usually fertilised by insects, cases of self-fertilisation did occur.[iii] He was the expert to whom experienced orchid growers including Frederick Burbidge and James Veitch turned with their queries. Given his  great knowledge of orchids and their fertilization  and his detailed botanical descriptions which appeared in his learned papers, Ridley cannot be dismissed as lacking in expertise in the late 1880s.

In a further attempt to downgrade Ridley’s status and expertise, the authors then gave several very truncated, carefully selected quotations, taken out of context and attributed to no one.

‘…many of Ridley’s [plant] records…had to be revised… later’

‘Ridley “was very uncritical in his study of [plants and] his published taxonomic work…is confused and often erroneous’

‘[Ridley’s] publications are unstable [and] appear to have suffered from errors due to hastiness…’

One characteristic the three quotations share is their irrelevance to Ridley’s 1893 article. Another is the ellipses which hide a lot.

I will look at one quotation in particular.   ‘Ridley “was very uncritical in his study of [plants and] his published taxonomic work… [sic] is confused and often erroneous’.  The original statement presents quite a different picture of Ridley to that implied by Arditti and Hew.

It said ‘Ridley had a very wide knowledge of plants but was very uncritical in his study of them’.  Hew and Arditti then leave out the following sentences, but do not tell the reader this. The text continues. ‘So, though he was an excellent field botanist and collected specimens of a large number of Malayan plants little known before (he added two hundred species to the known orchid flora of the Peninsula), his published taxonomic work is very confused and often erroneous; his Flora is hardly intelligible without reference to his herbarium.’ [iv]

This criticism applies to only Ridley’s Flora of the Malay Peninsula, a five-volume taxonomic work begun after his retirement to England in 1922, when he was in his late sixties and suffering ailing health. In view of how this quotation was truncated, one wonders just what has been left out and altered in the other quotations, let alone who said them.

Besides, for each quotation Arditti and Hew have provided to belittle Ridley and his work, one could select quotations that are highly complimentary:

‘He was a genius’ [v]

‘an excellent field botanist’[vi]   

‘Malaya’s greatest naturalist’ [vii]

‘a keen observer and a great naturalist’[viii] 

Arditti and Hew said there was no known evidence that Joaquim ever met Ridley. This statement contradicts what Hew et al quoted in the Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim namely that, “Agnes could not contain her excitement. Straightaway she took it [the orchid] to the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.” [ix] The director was Ridley. The authors cannot have it both ways.

We must also remember that Henry Ridley knew Agnes’ brother Joe, through their mutual interest in orchids and through Joe’s membership of the Gardens’ Committee and his role as a Municipal Commissioner.

Arditti and Hew stated that Basil Johannes recollected that Agnes had found the orchid. But as Hew et al said, the orchid was found some years before 1893. [x] Basil was not yet born. In fact he was born after the orchid was officially described in 1893. Besides, other of his recollections including his maternal grandfather’s occupation and where his grandparents married were inaccurate.

Arditti and Hew also rejected the story told by Basil’s older brother John (who had been living in Singapore since at least 1894) that Agnes crossed the orchid. That view was also held by other members of the Johannes family.[xi] Yet Arditti and Hew believe Basil Johannes, rather than John and his sister Ripsy.

To negate Agnes’s role, Arditti and Hew wrote ‘The Straits Times of 12 April 1899 stated that “[Joaquim] succeed [sic] in cultivating” Vanda Miss Joaquim,’ explaining that ‘cultivating’ meant merely ‘growing’.

In reality, the Singapore Free Press of 12 April 1899 stated that ‘Miss Joaquim showed a hybrid which has been named after her, that she has, after repeated trials, succeeded in cultivating.’  Given this context, ‘cultivating’ means more than ‘growing’.

To me, the author’s quotation epitomizes poor scholarship. It was attributed to the wrong newspaper. Because it had been truncated to suit their purposes, the true meaning was lost and finally a grammatical error was added.

Arditti and Hew regarded the lack of information on how Agnes germinated the plants as evidence that she had not made the cross or raised the seedling.  This reasoning is in stark contrast to Arditti’s assumptions in writing about Dean Herbert and his experiments with hybridization and germination.

Arditti wrote of Dean Herbert, ‘He gives no details regarding his germination method, but it seems reasonable to assume that it involved spreading the seeds near or at the base of mature plants because this method was reported to be successful at this time’.[xii] (i.e. 1806-1846.) Why then was it not reasonable to assume that Agnes had done the same instead of denigrating her for not giving details of her germination method? A case of double standards, perhaps?

Contrary to what Arditti and Hew have implied, considerable literature existed showing that orchidists and breeders have accepted that Vanda Miss Joaquim is an artificial hybrid.[xiii]

It is pure speculation on the part of Arditti and Hew that Vanda Miss Joaquim is a natural hybrid pollinated by bees, and which germinated in a clump of bamboo. Ridley, an orchid expert and respected botanist made no mention of bees, whose activities he had been researching in  Singapore. If the bees did it, why were no other naturally-occurring Vanda Miss Joaquims reported?

Had the plant been a natural hybrid Henry Ridley would have said so.  Such hybrids were also written up; Ridley himself had published papers on natural hybrids

As I have argued, why would Ridley concoct a lie? He had nothing to gain from doing so, and a lot to lose when the lie was exposed. Why would the Joaquim family have allowed a mistruth to have been published? Ridley’s statement was never queried by his contemporaries, nor did he ever amend it. He had no need to. He reported the facts: Agnes Joaquim had succeeded in crossing the orchid. Despite their continuous sniping at my conclusions, Arditti and Hew have not proved otherwise.


[i] Hew Choy Sin, Yam Tim Wing and Joseph Arditti (2002)  Biology of Vanda Miss Joaquim  Singapore University Press p.58

[ii]  Lawrence Sir T. 1886 ‘Orchid nomenclature: conference at Liverpool , Wednesday June 30th, 1886’ Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. pp. 297

[iii]  Ridley H. N. (1888) Notes on Self-fertilization and Cleistogamy on Orchids Linnean Journal Botany vol. XXIV pp.389-395

[iv] Holttum R. E. (1977) ‘A Personal View of Orchids’ in Orchid Biology Reviews and Perspectives, 1 ed. Joseph Arditti, Comstock Publishing Associates,  Ithaca.  pp. 17-18.

[v] Holttum R. E. (1960)  Obituaries Henry Nicholas Ridley  Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. XXXIII part 1 1960 p. 107

[vi]  Hew et al  op. cit. p.46

[vii] ibid. p.59

[viii]  Salisbury E.J. (1957). Henry Nicholas Ridley 1855‑1956. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 3: 145

[ix] Hew et al. op cit. p.41

[x] ibid. p. 35

[xi] Mirzaian A. (1983) The Comprehensive Armenian Address Book of  Australia.  Private Publishing  Sydney  p. 33.

[xii] Arditti Joseph (1992)   Fundamentals of Orchid Biology. John Wiley & Sons,  New York. p.43

[xiii]  Johnson H. (2004) ‘The Origin of Vanda Miss Joaquim’ Malayan Orchid Review, vol.38/2004.


My reply to Yam, Arditti and Hew’s ‘The Origin of Vanda Miss Joaquim How did Vanda Miss Joaquim really originate?   (Malayan Orchid Review, vol.38/2004)

Surprisingly, Yam, Arditti and Hew’s article, which purported to explain how the orchid ‘really’ originated, did not even  list Ridley’s original article in the Literature Cited. (Although the authors lifted two short, direct quotations from it, these were unacknowledged.)  The authors offered no new evidence to support their allegation that Vanda Miss Joaquim is a natural hybrid. Rather, they repeated their earlier claims - which have been thoroughly discounted - and introduced irrelevant, illogical and specious material.

In particular, the article reiterated the authors’ belief that the carpenter bee was the pollinator of Vanda Miss Joaquim. Their proof was that these bees visit Vanda orchids and have been seen to remove pollinia. However, no mention is made of any known Vanda Miss Joaquim ever arising from the bees’ activities. Because the parent orchids grew in Miss Joaquim’s garden and that because both are believed to be pollinated by carpenter bees does not prove the bees made the hybrid. 

As mentioned in earlier discussions, if bees had been the pollinators, Ridley would have said so. His botanical notebooks confirm that he had studied and described these bees and their behaviour, yet he never mentioned their fertilizing the parents of Vanda Miss Joaquim. (As Yam Arditti and Hew were at pains to point out, ‘when he had information, as in the case of ferns, he wrote it down.’) If he knew that bees were the pollinators, why would Ridley have made up a story about Agnes crossing the orchid and have it published in a leading journal?  A review of Ridley’s personal material reveals no instances of his being dishonest or deceptive.

A crucial question is why haven’t any naturally occurring Vanda Miss Joaquims ever appeared or been reported?  In attempting to answer this, the authors disingenuously altered it to read ‘Why have no additional natural hybrid V. Miss Joaquim plants been found recently’?

Even then, they did not adequately answer their question. They speculated that fewer people grew the parent plants together and  that fungicides have had an adverse effect on germination. These speculations, however, do not explain why no naturally occurring Vandas arose in the past when the parent flowers were plentiful and fungicides few nor why natural hybrids of other orchids are known to re-occur.

The authors also mentioned a natural hybrid found growing in a Mr Cooper’s garden as evidence that Vanda Miss Joaquim is a natural hybrid. But this hybrid was not a Vanda Miss Joaquim. Besides, the existence of other natural hybrids does not tell us anything about the pollination that produced Vanda Miss Joaquim. 

Yam et al. continued to highlight side issues, distracting the reader from Ridley’s knowledgeable, unchallenged and unambiguous statement that Agnes had crossed the orchid. They stated that certain seed germination methods were not known until after 1899, the inference being that Agnes could not have germinated the seeds. But in 1866 orchid grower James Veitch commented that once the simple technique of hybridising an orchid had been demonstrated by Mr Harris [in 1853], ‘hybridisation proceeded apace’. [i]  Indeed, by 1893 nearly 400 orchids had been successfully raised.[ii] In 1899 it was demonstrated that in nature a fungus is needed for seed germination; whether this is known or not, does not stop seeds from germinating.

To emphasise the difficulties of raising the seeds, and further imply that Agnes could not have bred the orchid, the authors selectively quoted from Veitch that ‘failures were at first, as now [bold face added] innumerable and numberless…’ However, they did not give the reasons for the failures, which Veitch clearly stated. ‘Among the most cogent causes of failure’ are the new climate, lack of sunlight, lack of heat from the sun and the orchids’ artificial environment in a greenhouse. [iii] None of these applied to Agnes’s seeds which were being germinated in their natural environment.

It is interesting that Veitch also noted that the fertilisation of orchids ‘presented no difficulty’ to Dean Herbert who was a man of science, but he regretted that Herbert’s advice to others to keep accurate notes was not followed in the early years of hybridisation. [iv] These early growers who did not keep notes were still credited with their crosses, unlike Agnes who was denigrated because of this.

Curiously Yam, Arditti and Hew, who have insisted that the orchid was found in a clump of bamboo, because Basil Johannes said so, then complained that none of the books on orchid growing contained advice on how to germinate orchids in bamboo. This is not surprising:  the notion that the orchid germinated in bamboo is a detail propagated by the authors themselves. But now they used it to imply that Agnes had not crossed the orchid as she should have known that orchids did not germinate in bamboo.

They further claimed that  if Agnes had used methods of germination known at the time (they now admitted these successful methods existed, after having gone to lengths to show that they did not) she would have told Ridley and he would have described them in his article. But why would he? A perusal of articles on new hybrids in the Gardeners’ Chronicle reveals that no writers mentioned germination methods; the articles described new orchids, both natural and artificial; they did not describe what was common knowledge to orchid growers. See the scan.

Finally it should be remembered that germination happens many months after pollination; it has no relevance to how the pollinia was transferred between the male and female flower.  What these authors are stating is, that if the pollination were done by a bee, then the seeds would germinate, but if the pollination were done by Agnes, the seeds would not germinate. That is illogical.

Yam, Arditti and Hew selectively quoted from Ridley’s article, saying ‘he only wrote that the cross was between “V. hookeriana Rchb.f. and V. teres”. In fact he had written: ‘she succeeded in crossing Vanda Hookeriana Rchb.f. and V. teres’. Yam, Arditti and Hew have intentionally omitted this crucial clause which indisputably stated that Agnes made the cross

The authors placed great weight on Humphrey Burkill’s 1963 statement that the orchid was found in Agnes’s garden. However Burkill never revealed his source of information.  This void is filled by more speculation.. Yam et al. assumed Burkill’s father, Isaac, who succeeded Ridley as director of the Gardens ‘may have had access to first hand knowledge from Ridley’, and that Isaac Burkill would have discussed this with his son. All this is pure conjecture. Besides, why would Ridley tell Isaac Burkill the opposite of what he had twice published: namely that the orchid was an artificial hybrid.

Yam, Arditti and Yew restated their belief that Agnes Joaquim ‘found the flower one morning when she was loitering’, asserting that these comments were ‘not invented’.   That assertion is false. The details constitute a complete fabrication..

They also argued that because there was no record of Agnes making other hybrids, she could not have made the first one.  To prove their argument that hybridisers tend to make many crosses, the authors mentioned Yeoh’s list of hybrids, where he named hybrids crossed by 72 breeders. But instead of detailing those results, they then referred to Sanders’ List (which edition of Sander’s List was used is not known, as none is listed in the ‘Literature Cited’), and said that 17, or 23.61% of the breeders, produced only one hybrid. It is also unclear which breeders are referred to. This statistic is different to what Yeoh’s list showed: namely that of 62 individual breeders, (the remainder were nurseries) 31 produced only one hybrid and 49 produced fewer than three.

Yam et al. claimed that ‘no other hybrids were produced until 1932’ because no one, including Ridley, knew how to hybridise. While this is a clear admission that Vanda Miss Joaquim was a produced hybrid, the second part of the sentence is incorrect. Ridley was knowledgeable of, and involved in hybridising as can be seen from his personal records..

Yam, Arditti and Hew concluded that Vanda Miss Joaquim was a natural hybrid and a foundling mainly because the parent orchids were growing in Agnes’s garden and both are pollinated by carpenter bees. And, bees still visit Vandas which then set fruit. They have not substantiated this argument; no evidence has been given of naturally-occurring Vanda Miss Joaquims.

Their other arguments which attempted to show Agnes could not have crossed the orchid are also flawed. More pertinently, the authors have failed to explain why they rejected Ridley’s contemporary account, an account written by an eminent botanist; an account which was accepted by Ridley’s peers and an account which was further substantiated by local newspaper reports, herbarium materials and  at least three descendants of the Joaquim family  That the authors believe unsubstantiated hearsay over all this  is incredible

To set the record straight, we must reject the  speculations, irrelevancies, specious arguments, confused logic, innuendos and truncated quotations put forth in their article. The article neither shows that the flower arose naturally nor that Ridley was incorrect.  To understand how Vanda Miss Joaquim really originated, we need only to return to Ridley’s definitive statement:  ‘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’ .[v]

[i]  Veitch H.J. 1886 ‘The Hybridisation of Orchids’ Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society vol.7 pt 1 p. 23

[ii] Orchid Review 1893 ‘The history of orchid fertilization’, Part XI vol.1 (12), December, p.360

 [iii] Veitch H.J. 1886 ‘The Hybridisation of Orchids’ Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society vol.7 pt 1 p.  p.24

[iv] ibid. p.23

[v] Ridley H. N. 1893 ‘New and noteworthy plants: Vanda Miss Joaquim’, Gardeners’ Chronicle, Series 3, vol. 13, 24 June, p. 740.

The truth rests in Agnes' epitaph:
"Let her own works praise her"
a fitting tribute to Agnes' success in breeding the orchid.

Copyright © Nadia Wright 2006. All rights reserved. Written permission must be obtained from the author
before republishing all or any part of this article in any form or by any means.

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