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Narcissus, fragrant flower of winter

Once a beautiful white narcissus bloomed on Chongming Island, but it gave way to flashier flowers. Now, the winter-blooming bulb is back in flower, thanks to constant gardeners, reports Nie Xin

While we are still huddled against the winter chill, the fragrant early narcissus reminds us of spring. Narcissus bulbs make wonderful Spring Festival gifts as recipients can watch the beautiful flowers grow.

Narcissus, a bulb flower on an upright stalk, is lovely, piercingly fragrant and a hardy bloom that is often white with a smaller golden flower inside. Varieties can be pink, red, green and other colors; daffodils are in the same family.

Around 40 species of narcissus are cultivated, most of them native to Europe. In China the most famous narcissus are from Zhangzhou in Fujian Province and Chongming Island in Shanghai.

The Chongming narcissus is smaller, more delicate, sweeter in fragrance and longer blooming than the Zhangzhou variety, which has been dominant on the island.

The Chongming narcissus is considered one of China's 10 best-known classic flowers, including peony, plum blossom, osmanthus and others. People in Chongming customarily give narcissus flowers as gifts expressing best wishes during the Spring Festival.

The first narcissus was planted in Chongming Island over 400 years ago -- there's a record dated in 1604.

There are many varieties of narcissus in Chongming, the most famous being yu linglong and jin zhan yin tai. There are also white daffodils, color-glazed daffodils, trumpet narcissus, ball-head narcissus and other blooms.

In the West, the narcissus takes its name from the Greek myth of narcissus, a beautiful and proud young man who was beloved by many but spurned their love. The gods froze him in place because of his cold heart; a beautiful white flower sprang up where he died.

There's also a tale of Narcissus being so in love with himself that he fell in love with his reflection in a pond -- and fell in and drowned.

Narcissus in China is called shuixian, which means "fairy in water." There are a lot of tales in China too about narcissus, especially about its blooming in cold winter.

A famous legend has it that during Empress Wu Zetian Period (624-705 AD) in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Empress Wu bestowed the title of the "King of Flowers" on the peony. To gain favor with Wu, peony ordered all the flowers to blossom on Wu's 60th birthday, despite their natural blooming season.

Honest and upright narcissus refused to bloom on the empress' birthday. The angry flower king banished narcissus to lonely Chongming Island, and never allowed it blossom in spring, summer or autumn -- only in the freezing winter.

However, the graceful Chongming narcissus has disappeared in Shanghai's market for over 30 years.

"Chongming narcissus faded out from the market, and was replaced by the (larger, flashier) narcissus flower of Zhangzhou from warmer Fujian Province," says Huang Libin, a narcissus gardener and manager of the Chongming Narcissus Association.

Due to poor sales, gardeners of the more delicate native narcissus lacked motivation to plant and switched to Zhangzhou blooms.

"It's really a pity. Chongming narcissus is one of our Chongming precious local products, and it has 400 years' history," says Huang.

Since the 1990s, Huang has been dedicated to reviving and popularizing the original Chongming narcissus.

"I have never given up improving the Chongming narcissus so it is reborn in the Shanghai market," says Huang.

After 13 years of effort and market domination by the Zhangzhou narcissus, there's good news from Chongming County -- their narcissus is back, with its celebrated fragrance, beauty and long blooming period.

Chongming narcissus now covers more than 100 mu (6.7 hectares), mainly in Gangyan Town. Last year, 200,000 Chongming narcissus bulbs were sold in Shanghai, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province; Japan, the United States and other countries.

The reborn narcissus is larger, with a bigger bulb, mostly 16-18 centimeters, some larger -- this means the bloom is larger. The size of bulb and corona is influenced by the temperature. Since Zhangzhou is warmer than Chongming, those Fujian narcissus are larger.

The constant gardener Huang has experimented in his greenhouse and adjusted temperature to around 25 degrees Celsius in the daytime.

In addition, the blooming period is longer than before. Generally narcissus in China bloom for 20 days. The new narcissus in Chongming can bloom for 30-45 days.

The Chongming Narcissus Association, the main supplier, is comprised of 10 families of gardeners dedicating to cultivating the native narcissus. More than 10,000 bulbs of narcissus were harvested this winter. "It's the most important step that will put Chongming narcissus back on the public market in the near future," says Huang.

So far, most flowers are only available in Chongming County. If Shanghai customers want Chongming narcissus bulbs, they can visit, of course, or call the association for delivery: 5945-6312. The price, says Huang, is 5-10 yuan per bulb.

At the Shanghai International Agriculture Products Exhibition in 2004, the local narcissus drew considerable attention.

It will be shown in the first Shanghai Chinese New Year Flower Festival during the coming Spring Festival.


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