Let prosperity bloom at Chinese New Year
By Duane Choy
With the Year of the Tiger roaring out of its cage, here's a glimpse into the cultural symbolism of some plants and flowers associated with the Chinese lunar new year.
In traditional Chinese beliefs, living plants embody rebirth, and flowers epitomize wealth and high rank or career status. A blooming flower on the first day of the new year indicates a coming year of prosperity, and the Chinese language further nourishes the symbolism with whimsical wordplays:
Kumquat (gumgut, Fortunella margarita): The Cantonese name is a pun for gold (gum) and good fortune (dai gut). The shape of the fruit indicates unity and perfection. Homes and businesses are decorated with pots of kumquats in hope of wealth and blessings. Candied kumquats are essential preserves for the new year.
Peach blossoms (taohua, Prunus persica): The pink flowers of the peach tree are a customary adornment for the new year. Sacred to the ancient Chinese, peach tree wood was a charm (taohua) against evil. It is an emblem of the god of longevity, Shoulao. At the New Year's flower fairs in Canton and Hong Kong, peach trees are sold to be displayed in the most revered family vases. It is believed that the older the vase, the longer the blossoms will bloom.
Pussy willow (yin liu, Salix caprea): The Mandarin name sounds like the Cantonese yin lou, which is similar to yin liang (money). The profuse, fluffy, silvery-white blossoms of the pussy willow mimic silk, and the juvenile shoots that spring forth are the color of emerald green jade. The Chinese equate these signs of growth with the coming of prosperity.
Peony (mu dan or fu kwei hua, Paeonia sp.): These extravagant, multi-petaled flowers represent wealth, prosperity and honor. The flowering plant denotes that good fortune is in the future.
Jin qian shu (Zamioculcus zamiifolia): The literal translation is "golden money plant." Its glossy, angular leaves represent the gold coins or ingots used in old China. This is another plant whose flowering signifies future good fortune for the household.
Lucky bamboo (kai yun zhu, Dracaena sanderiana): The translation of this name is "bamboo that invites good fortune." This plant symbolizes the five elements — water, earth, wood, fire and metal — to harmonize the flow of "chi" (energy) in the house. Each specific number of bamboo stalks, coiled into auspicious configurations, has a meaning.
Narcissus (sui sin fah, Narcissus tazetta var. orientalis): Considered the unofficial flower of the Chinese New Year, this esteemed and cherished blossom symbolizes affluence and plenitude. A blooming narcissus on the first day of the new year is believed to predict 12 months of good fortune. The elemental beauty of the white narcissus is a beloved motif in Chinese decorative art. Here on O'ahu, the Narcissus Festival, sponsored by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i, culminates with the crowning of a Narcissus Queen.
The botanical symbolism of the venerable Chinese culture embellishes the lunar new year. Kung hee fat choy!
Duane Choy is a Hawai'i native-plant specialist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.