With just one week to the New Year, red lanterns hang amidst peonies and peach blossoms everywhere you turn, dancing with the wind to lively festive songs. Early in the morning, trucks carrying pots of flowers and citrus trees join the rush hour traffic, and those who haven’t bought them yet are doing some last-minute shopping this weekend. Bakeries are filled with bottles of treats: pineapple tarts, almond cookies, arrowhead chips, love letters, peanut puffs, and brightly coloured gummy sweets. Grocery stores boast shelves of mandarin oranges, fizzy drinks, canned abalone, dried mushrooms, and ‘发菜’, symbolising ‘prosperity’, which interestingly is actually the terrestrial cyanobacterium Nostoc flagelliforme.
I’ve written of orchids and citrus trees in my previous posts, but there’s more to auspicious Chinese New Year plants indeed. The term ‘花开富贵’ means ‘flowers open, bringing prosperity and good luck’, so it’s no wonder that these symbols of happiness and good fortune adorn many households this time of the year. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means- I didn’t think that shopkeepers would appreciate me going around their shops with a camera instead of my wallet- but a sufficiently informative one, I hope, limited to those plants I could safely get close enough to for some photographs. Here goes:
A genus of flowering succulents, much loved for their masses of colourful blooms and easy upkeep. Being succulents after all, they don’t require much water, and quite like the sun as well. Their name in Chinese, 万紫千红, means 10,000 purples and 1000 reds, which as colours go, is very auspicious. Kalanchoe species have been used in traditional medicine, in the treatment of infections, rheumatism, and inflammation. Compounds isolated from the plants are also thought to have immunosuppressive (dampens the immune system), sedative (makes one lose consciousness), and cardiac (heart) effects- in short, if you buy the plant, don’t eat it.
One of the ‘four gentlemen’ renowned in the world of Chinese plants, members of the Chrysanthemum genus are native to Asia and Northeastern Europe. They’re held in high regard in Chinese culture and literature, often praised for their elegance in poems. Colourful chrysanthemums are very popular Chinese New Year plants, of all sorts of shapes and shades, but are rather fussy: their flowers wilt and brown easily and quickly. They are very sensitive to over-watering, don’t like Singapore’s heat, and don’t like too much sun either, although they do need to be in a bright area to bloom. Finicky and delicate, just like stereotypical ladies of high society in ancient China. Chrysanthemum tea is usually made from the dried flowers of C. morifolium or C. indicum, which the showy blooms for Chinese New Year usually are not, so don’t go drinking these ones.
Ruffled orange petals fringed with gold make French marigolds a lovely addition for Chinese New Year. Native to Mexico and Guatemala, they like the sun and prefer well-drained soil. Seeds germinate easily, and are a viable method of propagation in the garden. The plants don’t grow very tall, averaging 30cm to 50cm; flowers are approximately 4cm across. Besides being a lovely ornamental, the plant has many uses. Dried leaves, which emit a pungent smell, are used as infusions in some cultures. Essential oils from the plant may be useful against bedbugs, and flowers are used in poultry feed to give the egg yolks a rich golden yellow colour. It’s useful as a companion plant in the garden, since its root secretions are believed to be able to kill pests and therefore provide protection for its neighbours.
When I was young, we used to buy pussy willows every Chinese New Year, and hang little gold and red decorations on the buds. We’ve long since stopped doing that, since pussy willows really don’t last beyond the celebrations and have to be discarded, but the silky buds have to them an air of elegance that make them a lovely addition to the décor. These belong to members of the Salix genus, and are a symbol of spring. The green shoots that emerge subsequently are the colour of jade, symbolising prosperity.
Large balls of flowers, often of a bright pink, make hydrangeas a popular Chinese New Year plant. Native to Southern and Eastern Asia and the Americas, this genus prefers temperate climates and plants generally don’t like the heat in Singapore very much, although some success has been reported if grown in shade. Flowerheads actually contain two types of flowers, and interestingly, the flower colour of the most commonly seen species, H. macrophylla, is influenced by the concentration of aluminium ions in the soil, which is in turn influenced by soil pH. The higher the pH (more alkaline), the lower the concentration of free aluminium ions, and the pinker the flower will be. Acidic soils give rise to blue flowers. These plants require a lot of water, and need to be watered diligently every day.
Another Chinese New Year staple plant, these come in yellow, red, and hot pink. There are two main types of Celosia sold during the festive season: Celosia pyramidalis and Celosia cristata. The former is also known in Chinese as 凤尾草, or ‘phoenix tail grass’, harking to its feathery, fluffy appearance. The latter is more commonly known as cockscomb, for obvious reasons. These annuals are native to tropical Asia, and like the sun. They like their soil moist, but not wet, although withholding water can actually induce blooming.
For some reason, the alliteration in this name is very pleasing to the ears. The cherry chilli (Solanum pseudocapsicum) is also called the Jerusalem cherry, or winter cherry, and is native to Peru and Ecuador. It has lovely, cute little round fruits, pleasing to the eye but not to the stomach: the fruits of this plant contain the alkaloid solanocapsine, which can cause vomiting and gastroenteritis. The fruits ripen from green to red, turning yellow and orange in the process. This makes them look like jade, gold, and rubies, which are considered auspicious colours for Chinese New Year. The plant can live for up to ten years, and does prefer semi-shade, with moderate watering.