Singapore and the Botanic Gardens

Dr Tim Wing Yam
Senior Researcher (Orchid Breeding)
Singapore Botanic Gardens
National Parks Board



ON: Dr. Tim Wing Yam, could you give us an idea about your country, climate, geographical conditions, size?
TWY: Singapore is located at ca. 1º north of the equator, off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The nation consists of the main island of Singapore and 58 nearby islands. The total land area is ca. 690 km2. The whole island consists of mostly lowland. The highest point is at Bukit Timah, which reaches an elevation of 165 m. The equatorial climate has a relatively uniform temperature and high humidity. Average daily temperatures fluctuate between 25.2ºC and 32ºC. Annual rainfall is ca. 1700 mm, with the wettest months November–January.

ON: How many species of orchids grow in Singapore?
TWY: Of the 221 species of native orchids recorded in Singapore, more than 90% are endangered, vulnerable, rare, or extinct.

ON: In what kind of habitat, they grow?
TWY: Singapore is a modern city, yet it has many interesting types of natural habitats. The heart of the main island has a primary rain forest and a freshwater swamp forest. In addition, some mangroves remain along the coast. Other habitats consist of secondary forests, shrub, grasslands, and urban parks and fields.

ON: Most of them are terrestrial or epiphyte?
TWY: Of the total number of native orchid species in Singapore, ca. 75% are epiphytes, 25% are terrestrials.

ON: Singapore Botanic Gardens is a traditional garden founded in 1859 and the National Orchid Garden has opened on 20 October 1995. However the orchid breeding programme has started a long time ago, hasn't it?
TWY: The orchid breeding programme in the Gardens was initiated by R. E. Holttum.
He used the new (at the time) method of asymbiotic orchid seed germination developed by Professor Lewis Knudson to germinate seeds on sterile culture media. By the end of 1929, he reported that he was able to germinate seeds of Dendrobium crumenatum, Phalaenopsis violaceae, Vanda hookeriana, Vanda teres, Spathoglottis plicata, and one dozen other hybrids. Holttum flowered Spathoglottis Primrose (Spathoglottis aurea x Spathoglottis plicata), his first hybrid, in 1931.

ON: Singapore Botanic Gardens have created many hybrids. What can you say about the importance of those hybrids?
TWY: The Gardens started naming new hybrids after VIPs and visiting dignitaries. In 1956, the first VIP orchid Aranthera Anne Black (Arachnis Maggie Oei x Renanthera coccinea) was named after Lady Black, wife of the former Governor of Singapore, Sir Robert Black. This programme is still going on. Some of the recent hybrids named after dignitaries include Vandaenopsis Nelson Mandela (Vanda Mas Los Angeles x Paraphalaenopsis labukensis), Mokara Zhu Ronji (Arachnis Maggie Oei x Ascda Guo Chia Long) and Kagawara Megawati Soekarnoputri (Renanthera Tom Story Ascocenda Fiftieth State Beauty). Many hybrids produced by the Gardens became important in the multi-million dollar orchid cut-flowers export market. Examples are: Aranda Deborah (Arachnis hookeriana x Vanda lamellata), Aranda Majula (Arachnis Maggie Oei x Vanda insignis), and Aranthera Anne Black (Arachnis Maggie Oei x Renanthera coccinea). In the early 1980s, aware of the constant demand for new orchid hybrids, the Orchid Programme, led by Dr. Tan Wee Kiat, once again geared itself towards breeding exclusive hybrids to be displayed at the Gardens and for the local orchid industry. In 1995, a 3-hectare National Orchid Garden was opened to showcase the products of our breeding programme and our species collection. Orchid hybrids are displayed in a beautifully landscaped environment.

ON: What kinds of improvements have been introducted?
TWY: Recently, we started to breed polyploid hybrids. Most orchids have two basic sets (diploid, 2x) of chromosomes. Plants that contain more than the basic two sets of chromosomes are considered to be polyploids. The most common form of polyploidy is the doubling of chromosome number from diploid (2x) to tetraploid (4x). Tetraploid plants are usually more fertile (especially for intergeneric hybrids). As a rule, they are also horticulturally more desirable than their diploid counterparts. Flowers of tetraploids tend to have better texture, are bigger and have more intense colouration. So far, several tetraploids have flowered and the results are promising. We have produced hybrids with exciting new colours as such orange and red antelope dendrobiums. A dark chocolate-coloured Ascocenda flowered recently (it even smells like chocolate!). We also use parents species that were seldom used before such as Dendrobium singkawangense, Trichoglottis loheriana, Vandopsis waroqueana, and hybrids of Bulbophyllum, Coelogyne and Pecteilis. Some of these hybrids have flowered. They are interesting and possess unique characteristics that are different from the more common hybrids. We believe that these new hybrids will lead us to new and exciting breeding directions.

ON: You said that your breeding programme focuses in two major groups, dendrobiums and vandaceous orchids. It means that you don't work species come from another region?
TWY: We also work with species from the Americas.

ON: Thank you, Dr. Tim Wing Yam

Renachilus Ricky Martin
Spath. Lion of Singapore

V. Tan Hoon Siang
Vananthopsis Khoo Chin Hean

Photos by Tim Wing Yam

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