Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy Chinese New Year!

Since yesterday was Chinese New Year, I figured I would do a post about the flowers (and entire plants) traditionally incorporated into a Chinese New Year celebration. I had no idea there were so many, and that each one had its own meaning! So here we go, a brief walk through the plants of the Chinese New Year.

Species name: Prunus mume

Common name: plum blossom, Japanese flowering apricot, Chinese apricot

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (Canadian_flora)

The plum blossom tree is native to China along the Yangtze River basin. It is still incredibly common there, but is also now common in Japan, Korea, and North America where it is grown for its fruit. The fruit is often turned into a syrup and used in traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese cooking. It is also grown, especially in North America, for its very attractive flowers that have a very strong, sweet scent. One of the reasons why this specific species was chosen as one of the plants for Chinese New Year is because of its flowering time. Granted, where I live it's still -7 Celsius and we have a foot of snow, but the area that this tree is native to is starting to warm up, and the tree flowers in February and March. Perfect timing for a celebration in February! The plant is used to decorate the house because it is seen to be a sign of luck.

The Chinese apricot is also a plant that is important in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a treatment of stomach problems and oral infections. Interestingly, the effectiveness of this plant was studied in a clinical trial in the United States and it was found that extracts of the leaves and stems of the plant are effective in reducing the number of bacteria in the mouth (but not just "bad" bacteria; it also reduces the bacteria in your mouth that control the number of yeast in your mouth. Removing these can lead to an oral fungal infection commonly known as "thrush"), and also is moderately effective in the treatment of gastritis and gastric ulcers. There is also some suggestion that extracts of the fruit may help in increasing the amount of oxygen in muscle tissue, but this effect has only been shown to date in mice.

Species name: Fortunella japonica

Common name: kumquat

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (henryr10)

The kumquat is native to Japan and China, and is a popular edible fruit. Recently it has been introduced to North American supermarkets where it is slowly gaining popularity. We bought a container of them about 10 years ago and I thought they were a lot of work to peel for a fruit that tasted an awful lot like a mix between a clementine and a lemon! I've tried growing them indoors and they seem to not like either the pot and the soil they're in (more than likely), or the fact that I'm trying to grow a tropical fruit tree in a pot in North America (also more than likely). Either way, I'm about to give up on them! By reading about them just now I figured out that I was eating them wrong, and they're actually eaten backwards from every other citrus fruit. Usually only the rind is consumed, which is sweet, and the centre of the fruit is either eaten with the skin still intact or thrown away (it is very sour). They produce a very sweet-and-sour jelly, and so are often used to make preserves or marmalades. The Chinese use them around the Chinese New Year to represent prosperity.

Other than their edible value, kumquats are rarely grown for any other use. Based on the chemical composition of the skin and the fruit there has been the suggestion that they might play a role in preventing cancer, but to date that has never been tested.

Species name: Narcissus sp.

Common name: Narcissus, daffodil

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (kniphofia)

The daffodil is native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa, depending on the species. The daffodil is such a popular flower that there are over 1,000 cultivars of this plant alone, and they are revered in different parts of the world during the spring. In North America they are sometimes associated with Easter because of their very early flowering time, but also associated with various festivals and cultural or religious events around the world. It is even the national flower of Wales. It is believed that the name comes from the Ancient Greeks, who appreciated the flowers for their beauty but feared the bulbs for their toxins (more about that later). This follows the legend of Narcissus, the man who was so vain and appreciated his own beauty so much that he drowned while admiring himself in a pool of water. The Chinese have a story that a very poor but very happy man was made very wealthy by selling and trading daffodil bulbs, and so the daffodil is now a symbol of prosperity for the Chinese New Year. It is said that if your daffodils flower on the day of the Chinese New Year you will be extra prosperous that year.

It has been known for many centuries that the bulbs of daffodils are highly toxic (one of the contributing reasons why onions were shunned by the Europeans for centuries before they were willing to consume them; they also knew very well that tulip bulbs were also toxic). The bulbs contain the alkaloid lycorine which can cause severe illness when only small amounts are ingested, and can cause death if large amounts of daffodil bulbs are consumed. It also has large amounts of calcium oxalate (oxalic acid) in the sap, which can cause contact dermatitis (often referred to as "daffodil itch"). The Japanese historically used this plant in kampo, a version of TCM adapted by Japanese practitioners sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries. It was used as a paste with wheat flour on open wounds, presumably as a means of preventing infection. It is more likely that patients suffered horribly because of the calcium oxalate and lycorine, and it is no longer included in the list of herbs of traditional kampo.

Species name: Phyllostachys sp.

Common name: bamboo

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (growin)

The word "bamboo" actually applies to a tribe of plants in the grass family which all have the same general morphology of very large, wood-like, hollow stems. Some species grow taller than others, but all of them are very difficult to distinguish unless you're a bamboo expert (there are a few exceptions, but there wouldn't be bamboo experts in the world if it were easy to distinguish them!). The fastest growing species have been used (and are still used in some places) as a building material, and houses are even currently being constructed entirely from bamboo to demonstrate its ability to be used as more environmentally friendly alternative to wood. There are some species that are incredibly invasive, so if you choose to plant bamboo in your yard, make sure you're planting a species that will not destroy the local flora. There is also the legend that the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese armies used growing, living bamboo as a torture device to obtain information from prisoners, with the threats that if the information was not given in an appropriate amount of time, the bamboo would grow up through the prisoner, effectively killing them in an incredibly unusual and painful manner. You can imagine this is a pretty awesome urban legend, and I thought so, too...until I saw it on Myth Busters. They tied a dead pig on a wood-slatted bed, planted bamboo under it and left it alone for a week. When they came back, the pig had been impaled by the growing bamboo, and the bamboo was growing completely unimpeded through the animal. Pretty amazing when you think about the strength that some plants have when growing! To many cultures, bamboo is a sign of luck and the Chinese are no exception. Young bamboo shoots are eaten (if you've never tried some you should; they're fantastic!) after being lightly fried, and young bamboo shoots are also used as a decoration to bring luck during the year to come.

Bamboo is an incredible plant, and not just because of its growth rate. All species of bamboo display something called a "mass flowering," where all individuals of the same original stock flower at exactly the same time (I'm talking within hours of each other, regardless of whether or not they're even on the same continent!). This flowering could take place anywhere from 65 to 130 years after it was planted, depending on the species. Once the flowering is over and the seeds have been dispersed, the bamboo dies. For a plant to have some sort of flowering "alarm clock" that can be accurate to within a few hours after 130 years is mind-blowing. If you didn't think plants were cool before, I hope you do now!

Species name: Helianthus annuus

Common name: sunflower

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (Noell_swfl)

The sunflower is native to eastern North America, right around the Great Lake States and New England, stretching upwards just into Ontario. It is an annual plant, meaning it completes its life cycle in one year, so the fact that it can grow to be almost the height of a one-storey house in a single summer is impressive. The young flowers, often portrayed in native Mexican and southern American art as the sun, follow the path of the sun during the day and return to their starting position at night. Older flowers do not portray this; instead all of the flower heads are fixed in an easterly direction and so if you see them in the morning you might think they're facing the sun (when they're actually facing that direction all day). The seeds, a popular food for birds and small mammals in the wild, were used by early native North Americans as a source of food and also as a source of cooking oil. Seeds of the sunflower were brought over to Europe by the early conquistadors, where they became very popular with the Russian Orthodox church since they produced one of the only cooking oils allowed during the fasting of lent. I'm not sure where the Chinese adopted the flowers, but they are associated with a good year and so are used in decorating doorways and the dinner table.

One of my favourite days of the year is May 1st. Why, you ask? Well, because it's International Sunflower Guerilla Gardening Day, of course! You can sign up on the website to participate in this day of spreading flowering cheer by agreeing to distribute sunflower seeds in neglected flower beds, in ditches along roadsides, in neglected planters, and any other neglected dirt-filled space. Just make sure you're not planting them in peoples' gardens! They might not like that. :)

Species name: Solanum melongena var. esculentum

Common name: eggplant

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (NovKate)

The eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, a family of not only deadly toxic plants (such as Belladonna) but also many of our most popular edible plants (like tomatoes, potatoes and bell peppers). They are native to India, whereas most of their edible family members are native to the Andes in South America. Eggplants, also known as aubergines in Europe, come in many different shapes, sizes and colours, but the most popular are the traditional large, purple, egg-shaped fruit sold in North American grocery stores. The Chinese often grow plants that produce much longer fruits that are much more narrow, and can have colouration from a deep purple to almost white, and the fruits are often vertically striped or with an "ombre" effect (dark towards the tip of the fruit and a much lighter purple towards the end where it attaches to the stem).

There is an anecdotal study that reports that some people can have an allergic reaction to handling eggplants, which should come as no surprise based on its closest relatives. These allergies usually manifest themselves as a rash on the skin, but some people report nausea or upset stomach as a result of eating it. This usually only occurs in people who show a hypersensitivity to chemicals on their skin, but atropine, a chemical present in small quantities in eggplant and other species in the genus Solanum, can make skin photosensitive (meaning the rash is intensified in bright sunlight). The Chinese have used eggplant leaf extract in a paste-like form for centuries as part of TCM; it is believed that it can heal wounds quickly. It is used during Chinese New Year as a symbol of healing. It is also rumoured to be effective as a weight loss aid after the effect was demonstrated in rabbits; since then a few clinical trials have attempted to reproduce this effect in humans to no success; it was significantly less effective at causing weight loss than diet and exercise (either of these alone or combined).

Species name: Sandersonia aurantiaca

Common name: Chom mon plant, Chinese lantern lily

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (bonitin)

The last plant associated with Chinese New Year is the Chinese lantern lily (known only by that name in North America and Europe), or the Chom mon plant. It is native to South Africa and also flowers right around this time, and so lends itself to use as a decoration during the most important Chinese celebration of the year. The flowers, resembling Chinese lanterns, are symbols of tranquility. It is now incredibly rare in the wild in its natural habitat, often seen only on nature reserves and never in commonly visited locations. If you choose to purchase one of these plants, make sure your seller is reputable and does not obtain their stock (most commonly grown from tubers but sometimes by seed) from the wild.

The Chom mon plant has been associated with TCM for centuries (as well as traditional Zulu medicine in Africa) as an aphrodisiac, although now has been abandoned as a plant with any medicinal value. This is because the entire plant contains high levels of the chemical colchicine, an alkaloid that can cause death, having effects that closely mimic arsenic poisoning. Despite this, it is still used as a remedy for arthritic gout, and has been rumoured to be an effective cancer treatment. There are some clinical trials underway on non-human animals about the effectiveness of colchicine in treating (or preventing) cancer, and so far the results have been far from positive. Unless colchicine is prescribed for you by your doctor, I would absolutely steer clear from it!

To all of my blog readers: Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Hey Fat Choy!