Singapore honours VIPs with orchids
Singapore - Cuddly pandas are China's ambassadors of soft power and other countries use money or culture to enhance bilateral ties, but Singapore prefers to say it with flowers - orchids, to be exact.
The tropical city-state cultivates special orchid varieties and names them after a motley mix of foreign leaders and celebrities as part of its diplomatic repertoire.
What is striking in the VIP and Celebrity Orchids sections of the National Orchid Garden - part of the 63ha Singapore Botanic Gardens - are the famous names rather than the variety of blossoms.
There's the pastel-white Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana named after the tragic British royal and the star-shaped Paravanda Nelson Mandela in honour of the South African freedom icon.
More recently, the bright pink Ascocenda Yingluck Shinawatra was presented to the Thai prime minister.
"All heads of state and heads of government making state or official visits to Singapore are provided with the opportunity to have an unique orchid named after them," a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
"The practice of naming orchids after visiting VVIPs (Very Very Important Persons) has been in place for a few decades," he added.
Orchid-naming took root in 1957 during British colonial rule when an orchid variety was named after Anne Black, the wife of London's high commissioner to Singapore at the time.
The practice has escalated in tandem with Singapore's rising status within Asia, said Botanic Gardens director Nigel Taylor.
"Every country wants to offer visiting dignitaries something and nowadays there seem to be many more state visits to Singapore than perhaps there were in former times," the former curator of England's famed Kew Gardens said.
"It may be a reflection of Singapore's economy, it's certainly a reflection of Singapore's gateway position in Southeast Asia, and so I guess the traffic of dignitaries has just increased."
The National Orchid Garden currently has 181 orchids named after foreign heads of state and government as well as their spouses.
Taylor said that no other country has a regular programme of naming orchids or plants after visiting heads of state or their wives.
To ensure that there are enough samples of new orchid varieties ready to be christened, the garden has to cross-breed thousands of flowers each year, Taylor said.
The majority of the samples - which take at least three years to grow from seed to flower - are rejected as they do not meet aesthetic criteria, or are simply not different enough from other orchids.
"You need a lot of the seedlings to develop because you don't know which one is going to be the one that's going to be the next winning plant," Taylor stated.
"Generally speaking there are only going to be one or two candidates at any given moment that we can draw on."
In the cross-breeding process, botanists manually extract the pollen from a male orchid and insert them into a female of a different variety.
The seed that is formed is then harvested and placed within a specially formulated gel and periodically shaken by machines.
It is left to germinate in a laboratory which looks like something left over from the set of the 1993 dinosaur movie Jurassic Park.
VIPs are consulted if they have any aesthetic preferences for the orchid that is to be named after them, but not all requests can be met due to the unpredictable blooming periods of various breeds.
Generally a benign affair, the orchid-naming ceremony came into the spotlight in 2009 when Thein Sein, who was prime minister of Myanmar's military junta, had an orchid named after him during a visit to Singapore.
Three human rights activists staged a protest outside the Myanmar embassy to denounce the ceremony, saying Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's opposition leader, was more deserving of the honour.
But times have changed.
When Sein visited Singapore as president in January after freeing Suu Kyi from detention and launching political reforms, there was no fuss when his wife Khin Khin Win had an orchid named after her.
In addition to foreign dignitaries picked by the Singapore government, the National Parks Board also honours celebrities with orchids.
Pop star Elton John, top woman golfer Annika Sorenstam and Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan have lent their names to orchids, some of which are being sold at the garden's gift store for Sg$19 ($15.27).
Among the 19 celebrity orchids, one particular specimen stands out: the one named after Princess Diana.
"The image that most people remember of her was on her wedding day when she was in this glorious white dress," said Taylor, the Botanic Gardens director.
The pastel-white, elegant sprigs of orchid blooms were christened shortly after her death in a Paris car crash 1997, and remain the only flower to be posthumously named after a dignitary.