The Little Bulb That Conquered China

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The Chinese sacred lily (Narcissus tazetta chinensis): quite possibly the world’s most widely grown bulb! Source: Victorcny2010, Wikimedia Commons

If any narcissus has a story to tell, it’s the Chinese Sacred Lily. Odd name for a narcissus, you say? Indeed, and that’s part of the story of this fascinating bulb that became China’s darling over 1,000 years ago.

The botanical name of the Chinese sacred lily is Narcissus tazetta chinensis (some authorities prefer N. tazetta orientalis). Each bulb produces 4 to 6 flat green leaves and a stem up to about 16 inches (40 cm) tall with up to 8 honey/citrus-scented white flowers with a golden-yellow crown in the center. It’s closely related to the popular Paperwhite narcissus (N. papyraceus) and indeed, the latter was long considered a form of N. tazetta. After all, both are native to the Mediterranean region and are among the few subtropical narcissi (most narcissi and daffodils are hardy plants). The two do, however, differ by flower color (the Paperwhite narcissus, as the same suggests, is pure white) and by the number of chromosomes: the Chinese sacred lilies are diploids and have 11 chromosomes while Paperwhites are tetraploids, with 22 chromosomes.

Small Plant, Long History

The Chinese sacred lily may have left its first mark on history as the rose of Sharon mentioned in the bible. It’s also one of the plants that might be Matthew’s famous “lily of the field.” That would make sense, as it does grow wild in Israel and indeed throughout the Middle East. However, there are many other candidates for those both, including anemones, poppies, gladioli and crocuses, and which plant was actually referred to will probably never be known.

But how did it get from the Middle East to China? And so long ago? (It’s mentioned in Chinese scripts dating back to 863.)

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The Silk Road. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese sacred lily is believed to have traveled by caravan over the Silk Road. Some 1200 years ago, some enterprising camel driver probably felt that this winter blooming bulb with its beautiful white and yellow highly scented flowers might be of interest to the Chinese. To make things easier, the bulb remains fully dormant for 8 to 9 months each year and is therefore easy to transport. Carrying it 4,000 miles (6,400 km) over the Silk Road by camel caravan would not have been a problem.

Another theory is that it was instead Arab or Persian traders who brought it to China over ancient sea-trading routes.

Either way, it was being grown on a large scale in China by the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960). By then, it was already recognized as one of the symbols of Chinese New Year, because not only does it blooms naturally at about the right date (Chinese New Year takes place between January 21 and February 19, varying according to the Chinese lunar calendar), but its golden-yellow central crown is a symbol of good luck and prosperity. If it blooms on Chinese New Year, it is said to bring extra wealth and good fortune throughout the year. It remains a popular New Year’s plant to this day and in fact, is so widely grown in Asia it may well be the world’s best-selling bulb.

In China, Korea and Japan, the bulb has also escaped from culture and grows wild in several regions. Botanists who found it there assumed it was a native, hence the botanical name N. tazetta chinensis.

On to America

But the Chinese sacred lily had not yet finished its wanderings.

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Chinese New Year in 1850’s Oregon featured the Chinese sacred lily. Source: Peter Britt, Southern Oregon Historical

Chinese workers brought it to North America during California gold rush (1848–1856). It’s still found there, naturalized in fields, abandoned gardens and old Chinese cemeteries in and around gold mining areas. It is also during the gold rush that it was first called Chinese sacred lily, a name still used today as a cultivar name. (The Chinese themselves have many names for this bulb, including shui xian, shui xian hua, lien chu and seui sin faa, depending on the local dialect.)

Why lily and not narcissus? My guess is that gold miners probably weren’t too knowledgeable about horticulture!

Growing Chinese Sacred Lilies

Unless you live in a mild climate (zone 9 or warmer), this is one narcissus you won’t be able to plant outdoors. Most readers of this blog will have to grow this tender bulb indoors, protected from severe cold.

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You can grow the Chinese sacred lily in a bowl of decorative stones if you want to. Source: kentucky.com

It couldn’t be easier to grow. Just place 3 to 5 bulbs in a 6 to 8-inch pot (15 to 20 cm). You can plant them in potting soil in a pot with drainage holes or even in decorative stones in a cachepot. Bury at least the base of the bulb so it remains solidly upright, but you can leave the top part exposed. Water well and, if possible, place the pot in fairly a cool place, at less than 65 ° F (18 ° C) at night. You could, for example, place the pot in the window of a barely heated garage, a protected veranda or a cold frame. Or set it in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks until plenty of roots have formed, before exposing it to more warmth. Even if you can’t supply cooler temperatures, the bulbs will still bloom, but will then tend to etiolate (stretch) and you may need to stake the stems. Giving it as much sunshine as you can is another way of keeping the plant more compact.

Normally, the bulbs will bloom 3 to 8 weeks after planting, depending on when you plant them. (The later in the season you pot them up, the faster they come into bloom.)

While They’re in Bloom

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Chinese sacred lily in bloom. Source: biglobe.ne

Just keep their roots moist, watering well when the soil is dry to the touch. The Chinese sacred lily can easily tolerate normal indoor temperatures when in bloom.

After Flowering

Most authorities suggest simply tossing the bulbs after they bloom, claiming they won’t bloom a second time, but I beg to differ. That may be true if you grow them in stones where they won’t be able to recuperate the minerals they lost when they flowered, but if you plant them in pots of soil, you can bloom them again and again. Just follow the plant’s normal growth cycle.

For example, continue to water as long as the foliage remains green. Also, after flowering, start fertilizing the plant regularly. When the leaves finally do turn yellow, which can take two months or more, stop watering and fertilizing and allow the bulbs to go dormant. You’ll probably want to hide them from sight during spring, summer and early fall, but you don’t have to. Certainly, you don’t have to store them in the dark, another common misconception about dormant bulbs. (The plant will be dormant: do you think it cares whether it’s in the dark or in the sun?) Then, late next fall or early next winter, from November to January, start watering again and the plant will grow back and quickly come into bloom.

In Bloom for Chinese New Year?

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Chinese sacred lilies on sale in Hong Kong at New Year’s. Source: Victorcny2010

Cultivating Chinese sacred lilies exactly on time for Chinese New Year is quite a challenge, as the holiday changes date according to the lunar calendar. Commercial growers of the bulb invest a lot of effort in precisely controlling growing conditions in order to have it bloom at exactly the right time. You can’t really expect to do as well as they do under home conditions. However, if you start watering about five weeks beforehand (Chinese New Year will be February 16 in 2018, so in early December 2017), you ought to be quite close.

Personally, I don’t aim for a particular date. I’m happy to see this bulb flower whenever it wants to and I just start watering when I see the first signs of green growth at the tip of the bulb.


The Chinese sacred lily is available from mail-order bulb suppliers and garden centers. Indeed, if I’m writing about it right now, it’s because I was able to buy a pack in my local garden center just this week. Look for it: it’s a most interesting plant with quite a history and certainly something to charm the earliest days of winter!20171108A Victorcny2010, WC

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