Plants for the Chinese New Year: Linnaeus, Lilies, Bamboos, and Ancient Egyptian Cemeteries

Plants for the Chinese New Year: Linnaeus, Lilies, Bamboos, and Ancient Egyptian Cemeteries

Justin No Comment
Chinese Sacred Lilies

I read an interesting article on the Plants of the Chinese New Year for 2012 and their symbolic importance and thought it would be a nice post for today, January 23, 2012, the Chinese New Year (of the Dragon). Since the Dragon symbolizing good fortune in many Asian cultures, it stands to reason that many of the plants associated with this New Year are also associated with (financial) prosperity. Those born in 2012, the Year of the Dragon, are said to be bold, imaginative, and prosperous. So kudos to you all. Also bear in mind that it isn’t just the Year of the Dragon, but rather the Year of the Water Dragon, fortuitous for the plants associated with the Year of the Dragon as they will grow and prosper. Just an all-around good year for these people, I suppose.

So, I bring you the prosperous plants of this Year of the Dragon

Miniature orange trees or kumquats, Citrus japonica

These kumquats can be found throughout Asia most of the time, but especially so during New Year’s festivities as they symbolize prosperity (and are downright delicious). Below is a citrus japonica specimen , minus the actual fruit, collected in 1777 (not verified) by C.P. Thunberg from the Swedish Museum of Natural History (S), one of our finest GPI partners. All our partners are wonderful, but the Swedish Museum of Natural History is especially so, contributing over 23,000 specimens (so far) and even recording videos.

Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) is an interesting character as well (please excuse the digression from the New Year here), being one of Carl Linnaeus’s disciples spreading the taxonomic word throughout the world. He travelled with the Dutch East India Company to Japan where he spent fifteen months studying flora and making other observations. At that time Japan was closed to foreigners, so how he managed to pull this off is beyond me. He had previously spent three years in southern Africa studying flora and we have many specimens from that expedition in JSTOR Plant Science. He also collected in Sri Lanka. He is considered to have been the greatest botanist of his day and organised large collections from a number of European countries. This kumquat plant specimen is taken from that trip to Japan.

Chinese Sacred Lilies, Narcissus tazetta

Another plant that fortuitous in the Year of the Dragon is one of my favorite binomial taxonomic names ever, the Chinese Sacred Lily, aka Narcissus Tazetta. The Chinese sacred lily is not even a lily. It is called shui xian hua (水仙花) in Mandarin, which can be translated as water goddess flower. The botanical designation is Narcissus tazetta v. chinensis and the specimen presented here is from GPI partner, the Linnean Society of London Herbarium (LINN), thus further proving that Linnaeus’s imprint is felt throughout the plant world.

The Narcissus Tazetta species does seem to have originated in the Mediterranean region, so it would be interesting to do some further research on how it made its way into China, or if this was merely a common species found in particular environmental conditions. At least one variation of the species, Narcissus Tazetta L., was present throughout antiquity judging by its presence in Roman artifacts (Van Siclen, 1987).

Also, correspondence found in JSTOR Plant Science indicates that this plant was present in Egypt as well (Plant list presented by Jesse Haworth Esq. to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; from Woodside, Bowdon, Altrincham, Cheshire; c. 31 Aug 1888; six page list comprising six images; folios 400-404), at least in the cemeteries of ancient Egypt, specifically in the cemetery of Hawara, Egypt. There are four pages to the plant list, including flowers of Narcissus tazetta, berries of Solanum dulcamara, petals of Rosa sancta, seeds of Laurus nobilis and Linum humile. I will need someone from the Global Plants Initiative (GPI) to confirm if cemeteries are indeed common spots for plant collecting, but until then I will just classify this one as oddly eccentric. So, from the cemeteries of ancient Egypt to New Year’s celebrations in China, the odyssey of one pseudo-lily.

Lucky Bamboo, Dracaena sanderiana

Another instance of an imported plant of prosperity, the Lucky Bamboo plant is native not to China, but rather to the rainforests of Cameron and tropical West Africa. It can also be found throughout Indonesia. It was eventually imported and marketed to China as lucky bamboo as it does have a long association with the practice of feng shui (all those straight lines of the plant are indeed hard to resist). It also fits in nicely with the Year of the Water Dragon as it is considered a good example of both a wood and water element. Three stalks of the lucky bamboo indicate happiness, five for wealth, and six for health. Like in many other Asian nations, including Korea where I am writing from today, the number four is avoided as it sounds like the word for death, a decidedly un-dragonlike lack of prosperity (assuming you equate death with a lack of prosperity).

It is also not a bamboo, but rather a resilient lily variety. Which makes sense considering the previous entry, Narcissus Tazetta, was labeled a lily, but was in fact something else. It is resilient in that it can grow with little sunlight, conditions commonly found in tropical rainforests. Most of the time, you will see these plants as gifts in pots.

Poncirus Trifoliata, aka the Flying Dragon

There are many other plants that have associations with prosperity and the Year of the Dragon, including, Poncirus (Citrus) trifoliata, aka the ‘Flying Dragon’, one of the few on this list specifically native to Asia (China and Korea). It is sometimes known as the Chinese Bitter Orange, but it is not actually citrus. It differs from citrus fruits in that it is deciduous (plants that shed their leaves for parts of the year), compound leaves (a fully subdivided blade separated along a main or secondary vein, a characteristic of an advanced plant) and pubescent, downy (think fuzzy, like peaches) fruit.

It also has some good medicinal uses as the leaves have traditionally been used to treat allergic inflammation through the chemical properties of neohesperidin (a derivative of which is an artificial sweetener) and poncirin. Further, and perhaps you didn’t want to know this (but if you are reading this far, I assume you are resilient), but a liquid extraction has proven to suppress weight gain in rats. If you don’t think this will be on the market soon as a weight loss supplement, think again. I will keep my eyes peeled in the markets in Seoul. The leaves of the plant are also used to treat gastric disorders.