In April 1981, it was decided that Singapore’s national flower was to be the hybrid orchid, Vanda Miss Joaquim, or as modern day Science has re-classified it, the Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim. They’d chosen it for its “vibrant colours, hardiness and resilience”, which indeed it bears, although they’d also quietly and conveniently ignored its requirements for heavy fertilizing and vertical supports. Nonetheless, it was a horticultural success story and a good choice- one more reflective of pragmatism than romanticism.
Orchids are a huge family of flowering plants, scientifically known as the Orchidaceae. As of 2016, members of this family fall into about 763 genera. In fact, the genus Vanilla is responsible for the eponymous flavouring, of such a ubiquitous culinary presence that it’s now unfortunately synonymous with ‘boring’. Other genera are more recognizable as decorative plants, often grown in pots or simply made of cloth and plastic for those happier with perfect, everlasting, fake blooms. Or perhaps like the eccentricity of upside-down blooms that had amused me at the final section of a huge Swedish company I shall leave unnamed, stuck on by staff or machines who’d clearly decided that no reference plants were necessary. Maybe they were simply liberating those orchids from the shackles of social norms.
Whichever the case, orchids have appealed to not just insects, but mankind as well. In Chinese culture, the genus Cymbidium, or boat orchids, are seen as symbols of purity, grace, and elegance, and a member of the famous 四君子, or ‘four gentlemen’: plum blossoms (梅), boat orchids (兰), bamboo (竹), and chrysanthemum (菊), featuring prominently in many traditional Chinese drawings.
In Singapore, species of the Dendrobium genus are commonly seen. They’re well-adapted to the constant heat in the country; being epiphytes, they require relatively dry conditions, and will not take well to over-watering. To mimic their natural conditions, they often come in pots filled with charcoal as the potting medium. The colour of the leaves serves as a good sunshine indicator: too much for them, and they turn yellow. Blooms are surprisingly long-lasting; those on the plant I’d purchased have lasted for weeks. To my surprise, a new flower spike made my day when it said hi by prodding my arm this morning whilst I was settling in a new addition to the little colony of plants. Dendrobium can reproduce either sexually, via seed pods, or asexually, via small shoots known as keikis, which can later be transplanted and will grow into new plants. Seed pods, although evolutionarily more desirable, are comparatively harder to propagate. I do have fond memories of them, though, at a laboratory in the botanic gardens. We were testing ideal conditions for the cryopreservation of orchid seeds, but part of the fun was in putting seedlings into grey squishy agar, and dipping seed pods into alcohol before flaming the alcohol off, leaving the pod unscathed, which was pretty much magic to a seventeen year old kid. For those who eschew mere superficial pursuits, fret not: Dendrobium nobile Lindl is used in traditional Chinese medicine, dried into very expensive little coils known as shi hu (石斛). It’s used in the treatment of conditions relating to the stomach and eyes, and even systemic lupus erythematosus. Many Dendrobium species are also thought to remove the toxic solvents, toluene and xylene, from the air.
Come the Lunar New Year- or Chinese New Year as it’s commonly called here- a new type of orchid takes the spotlight: the Phalaenopsis genus, or moth orchids, usually imported from Taiwan. When I was a really tiny kid, we didn’t usually venture beyond the norm with Chinese New Year plants: we’d get kumquats, complete with lime butterfly caterpillars, and Celosia, which have big feathery pink or yellow blossoms. In recent years though, stores have on hand a huge array of different plants, including marigolds, chrysanthemums, kalanchoes, cherry chillies, and even hydrangeas. But Phalaenopsis orchids are popular for their lovely large multi-coloured blooms resembling butterflies, giving rise to their Chinese name 蝴蝶兰, meaning ‘butterfly orchid’. They symbolise spring, happiness, vitality, and longevity, and often come adorned with additional red and gold ribbons. These generally come in pots of sphagnum moss, don’t like being given too much water, and do well in bright but shady areas. Many Phalaenopsis species like being warm, surviving well at 25-35°C and therefore Singapore, but are also able to adapt to conditions at 15-30°C. Their leaves are noticeably different from that of Dendrobium leaves, being larger, rounder, and grow from the base instead of long stems, or rather pseudobulbs, seen in Dendrobium species. Its buds are also rounder, resembling bubbles rather than the pitchers seen in Dendrobium species. One and a half weeks to the New Year, I now have a pot of Phalaenopsis with three differently coloured blooms, huge and vibrant, sitting beside a little pot of four season limes. In fact, it was when I was settling in the Phalaenopsis that the Dendrobium flower spike had poked me, probably to remind me that hey, I shouldn’t neglect it in favour of the new guy.