Singapore: Orchid Heaven


Singapore’s National Botanic Garden: An Orgy of Orchids

I’m smitten with orchids. I’m not really sure why; I suspect it’s simply their exotic beauty, though my friend Dave insists that their sensual curves and lips appeal to the repressed heterosexual in me. Whatever the cause, I caught orchid fever about fifteen or twenty years ago, and have been growing them ever since.

You might be surprised to learn that orchids grow relatively easily in the home; in fact they’re not nearly as rare nor as fussy as they might seem. It’s true that they are particular in their requirements, but once you meet their needs they’re actually downright easy to maintain.

vanda orchid

Tropical orchids are epiphytes; that is to say, most of them don’t grow in the soil. In their native tropical forests, light and good air circulation are hard to come by down on the ground floor. So orchids have taken to the air, growing high in the canopy in the dappled shade of the treetops. They have thick, clinging roots that attach to the trees without harming them, and get all the water and fertilizer they need from the abundant rains that wash downward through the trees’ branches.

People have been growing orchids at home for over a hundred years. Orchid fever hit England during the Victorian era, and it happened somewhat by mistake. Before the epiphytic orchids were discovered, aristocrats were seeking the newest, most obscure tropical flowers they could find to fill their conservatories, and commissioned plant hunters to travel far and wide to places like Panama or the Philippines or the deep jungles of Borneo to bring back the most exotic specimens. It was dangerous, difficult work, and many of these plant collectors never made it back alive. One of them, William John Swainson, was bringing back a shipment of non-orchid plants from Rio and chose to use as packing material the thick, sturdy orchids that were growing all around him. He believed at the time they were parasitic plants. But they began to bloom, spectacularly, and orchid fever was born.

dendrobium orchid

To grow orchids at home, you need strong filtered light and good air circulation, and temperatures that fluctuate a bit between night and day. That’s about it. And it helps to have a bit of extra space, because I’m here to tell you that you can’t have just one. You’ll soon be ‘rescuing’ sad-looking plants from Home Depot, and trading your extra orchids with your friends. Oh, and then there are the annual shows, where you see the very best and newest of what people are growing. They say there’s a fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness”, and nowhere is that more evident than at an orchid show. Along with the glorious displays are marvellous sales rooms where you can buy stuff you can’t find anywhere else. I leave my credit cards at home.

Which brings me to the stunning National Orchid Garden of Singapore. The people of this part of the world have their own brand of orchid fever: Filipinos, Malaysians and Singaporeans have been growing and appreciating orchids for a very long time. Here at the National Orchid Garden, there are entire genera of orchids that I’ve never even heard of, planted out row by row like petunias back home. They do their own hybridizing here, and they’ve managed to tame some of the more gangly and unwieldy species down to compact, charming little plants. I coveted nearly every one of them.

cattleya orchid

They even have a cold house for orchids that grow in the mountains. It was an odd sensation to walk through a greenhouse that was chilled by air conditioning, but Singapore is nearly smack on the equator, and many orchids actually prefer a cooler climate.

I hope these photos tempt you to give in to a bout of orchid fever; I promise your lives will be the richer for it.


  1. It’s not long before the annual orchid show here in Vancouver will be ready to part you from your change! Thanks for the lovely write-up. I’m always overwhelmed when I see orchids growing in tropical backyards, or better yet, in the wild- they’re bursting with color, vibrant, and look downright hardy. I reflect on my misting, re-potting, fertilizing, pest-picking, and long for a little piece of their natural environment.

    In other news, the lovely Cattleya specimen you gave me is doing well (but hasn’t yet bloomed for me), and I think my large Oncidium will be ready to donate a bit of itself to you this year!

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