Relict Gold: The Long Journey of the Chinese Narcissus

By: Donn L Todt

Donn L Todt served as horticulturist for the Ashland, Oregon Parks Department for thirty years. His current research focuses on…

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Miner Toi Kee displays narcissus grown for the Chinese New Year celebration in Jacksonville, Oregon in the 1850s. Photograph by Peter Britt, courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society

In the old Northern California gold-mining town of Shasta, it is a pale spring morning, and almond trees are in full bloom. The town rests snugly within the folds of the foothills rimming the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, west of Redding. A long row of connected, red brick buildings, vacant and roofless, is a relict of a gold-rush business district. A pair of California quail prospect for seeds within one of the green and weedy, bricked-in rectangles.

In a grassy lot fronting the old business district, an isolated clump of white and yellow flowers stands silhouetted against a brick façade. The flower heads sway on long stems in the cool morning breeze. A walk through the semi-rural landscape surrounding the old buildings reveals additional clumps of flowers, small narcissus, in full bloom. In the cemetery on the other side of the highway, the flowers grow alongside native plants. Like the early gold-rush prospectors, these narcissus traveled far to reach their present home. The plants are rooted in layers of history—not just the history of this Northern California landscape, but of the wider Pacific Rim and of the distant Mediterranean Basin.

The Chinese who arrived in the American Far West in the mid-1800s knew the country as Gam saan (Gold Mountain). In this unfamiliar territory, they encountered brutal working conditions and waves of racial prejudice from a nativist frontier culture. Like many isolated and homesick peoples, the newly arrived Chinese took solace in the familiar: traditional foods, conversation with their countrymen, and celebrations connecting them with the calendar of home. Foremost among their celebrations was the lunar New Year. A variety of flowers are intimately associated with Chinese New Year, but the landscapes of the Far Western frontier provided none of those early-blooming, emblematic species.

A Floral Tradition Arrives

One flower, however, a narcissus (Narcissus tazetta subsp. chinensis) was imported from southeastern China as easily shipped, dormant bulbs. In China, the flowers of these bulbs had a centuries-old association with New Year celebrations. In the isolated frontier communities of the American West, these iconic bulbs were grown as they had long been grown in China: they were placed within shallow bowls filled with pebbles and water, just as paperwhite narcissus (N. papyraceus) are often grown for winter holidays today. The frontier-era Chinese called their narcissus seui sin faa (water immortal flowers) in their melodic Cantonese dialect. The flowers are often known in English as “Chinese sacred lilies” or “joss flowers.”

We might expect such a culturally weighted plant to be native somewhere within the vast region of China. It appears, however, that the ancestral stocks of these bulbs arrived in China from a region far to the west, more than a thousand years ago. They may have been imported into China via the Silk Routes through Central Asia, or they may have arrived via ancient Persian and Arab sea-trading routes between the Middle East and southern China. It is likely that bulbs were initially transported into China by both land and sea. Since all narcissus species are rich in alkaloids, the bulbs may originally have been imported for medicinal rather than ornamental purposes.

The relict gold of Chinese sacred lilies brightens the early days of the lunar New Year in Shasta, California. Photographs by author, except as noted

Distant Origins

Narcissus tazetta, the parent of the subspecies chinensis, grows within the warmer regions of western Asia and around the Mediterranean Basin. There the plants thrive in seasonally wet pastures, on rocky slopes, and sometimes within shallowly tilled fields. The plants have been cultivated for such a long time that it is difficult to distinguish natural distributions. Narcissus tazetta has been identified in an ancient Egyptian tomb and is a strong contender for the identity of the rose-of-Sharon in the Bible’s Song of Solomon.

The ancestral stocks of Chinese sacred lily were imported into China sometime before the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Eventually, because they flower so early in southern China (at approximately the time of the lunar New Year), the flowers became associated with New Year celebrations. A horticultural tradition developed around the propagation of the bulbs and the seasonal display of their flowers. The bulbs require close tending to time their flowering to the variable date of the lunar New Year.

The flowers have been commercially propagated in southeastern China near the border of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. There, over many generations, market gardeners perfected techniques for growing the bulbs in their summer-wet climate. The bulbs are carefully cultivated, then dug and dried at the end of the growing season. In autumn, they are replanted. After a minimum of three years, the bulbs are large enough to produce flowers. Once dormant and dry, they are packed and distributed throughout China and overseas.

In the mid-1800s, bulbs and other commodities were shipped across the Pacific to the West Coast of North America. Sold there by Chinese merchants, the bulbs had to be meticulously tended. They needed to be planted in containers at the proper time, and growing plants were moved frequently from sun to shade to compensate for seasonal weather variations. That the hard-working and hardpressed Chinese miners and laborers were able to nurture their bulbs into bloom for frontier lunar New Year celebrations is a testament to their horticultural skills and to the tenacity with which they held to a cherished tradition.

Chinese sacred lilies grow where they were planted on the slope above remnant mining-era buildings

Chinese sacred lilies are among the first flowers to bloom within this hillside cemetery

At Home in California

The Chinese who received bulbs from overseas frequently offered them as gifts to their American neighbors. As end-of-the-year holidays arrived, potted and flowering plants were given away as well. After blooming indoors, they were planted outdoors. The plants were perfectly adapted to survive in the summer-dry, mediterranean-type climate of California. They cycle naturally from foliage and flowers to summer-dormant bulbs, just as they do within their ancient homelands of western Asia and the Mediterranean Basin. Climatically, they have traveled full circle.

Within the old mining town of Shasta, the descendants of those mining-era, pass-along plants now grace the community as the season of the Chinese New Year arrives. They flower within gardens and vacant lots and behind the tumbled-down, red brick ruins of period buildings; clumps of flowers decorate gravesites in one of the pioneer cemeteries. In this vernally green, long-shadowed landscape, the small flowers tremble with hillside breezes. The land, itself a reliquary, holds memories of the past.

Gifts of flowers gave the Chinese no immunity to ill treatment by their American neighbors. Armed vigilantes forcibly removed most Chinese miners from local gold-mining areas. Some traveled to more distant and inaccessible locations where there was less competition and consequently less hostility. Many returned to China, and some drifted to safer urban enclaves such as San Francisco’s Chinatown. They carried their horticultural skills with them, wherever they went.

Still, in the hills of Northern California, the flowers remain, offering to all the sight, scent, and promise of a New Year.