Customers shopping for plants for the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, February, 2021. Photo: dictall.com & pngtree.com
Yes, Chinese New Year 2021, the Year of the Ox, starts on February 12th, and involves all sorts of fascinating traditions: family gatherings, gifts, huge feasts, dancing dragons, prayers, offerings, festivals and… plants and flowers. Yes, no one couldn’t imagine celebrating such a festival without bringing home an auspicious plant or two.
It may seem early for many Westerners, but Chinese New Year is essentially a spring festival, celebrating the end of a long, barren winter and the return to life that spring brings. Indeed, in China it is more commonly referred to as Spring Festival (??). Trees or plants in bloom or fruit are seen as potent symbols of fortune and thus mainstays of the preparations.
So, just what are these lucky plants… and maybe you ought to bring one home soon too!
1. Money Tree (Pachira aquatica)
Rubbing the fat “buddha belly” at the base of this indoor tree is said to bring financial success. It’s a true tree and will need a bit of pruning to stay houseplant size, but if you keep it in a small pot and cut it back regularly, it can be manageable, although coaxing it to branch can be a bit of a battle. With its palmate leaves, it looks a bit like a schefflera and is often sold in the form of several seedlings with their fat stems braided together. Give this plant full sun to moderate light and let the soil dry out slightly between waterings. High humidity during the winter will help prevent leaf loss.
2. Calamondin Orange (Citrus × microcarpa)
According to Chinese tradition, orange means – cha-ching! – money! And the calamondin orange has small orange fruits in spades. Bringing one home thus symbolizes a fruitful and abundant year! The Chinese word for this plant also just happens to be a pun on luck and fortune: talk about auspicious!
The entire plant, usually grown as a small indoor shrub, is dotted with orange, hard, bitter (but edible) orange berries. They last for months on the plant and it reblooms intermittently, with deliciously scented white flowers to bat. What more could you ask for?
Give yours full sun or at least the strongest light possible if you want it see it rebloom and continue to bear fruit. Water when the soil is dry to the touch and fertilize occasionally with an acidifying fertilizer, if possible. Put it outdoors in the summer so bees pollinate the flowers; any blooms indoors you’ll have to pollinate yourself. And keep it pruned!
Of course, you can substitute any orange-fruited citrus for a calomondin orange: a mandarine or tangerine (both C. reticulata), a sweet orange (C. × sinensis), a kumquat (C. japonica), etc., but they’re bigger plants (other than the kumquat)—indoor trees, really—and way more expensive.
3. Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)
You’ve known this plant forever and have always called it jade or jade plant, but the common name really does come from the Chinese belief it represents jade, the precious mineral so admired in China. It’s said to bring wealth, luck and good fortune… and who doesn’t want that? It’s considered specially auspicious to offer it as a gift. Give your gifted jade plant plenty of light, even full sun, and let it dry out thoroughly before watering it again.
4. Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana)
Of course, this plant is not a bamboo, but a stripped down and (frankly) tortured dracaena. I’ve always found lucky bamboos rather pitiful, stuck unhappily in its their bowl of stones and water, but the Chinese lap them up and place them everywhere. They are said to bring good luck throughout the year. To up the luck factor, you need more than just the plant. You see, there are 5 earth elements and you’ll want them all to be present: earth (represented by the stones in which they grow), water (they sit in water), metal (gold-colored ties or medallion or a metal container), fire (so you need something red, like a red ribbon, pot or other accent) and, of course, wood, the plant itself.
It will tolerate almost any light condition, but prefers medium light. As for watering, keep a little in among the stones at its base all times, changing monthly. Add only the slightest smidgen of fertilizer very occasionally from spring through early fall. Or, if you really want to make your lucky bamboo happy, pot it up into real soil like the real plant it really wants to be and let it grow to its hearts content instead of confining it soilless in a tiny pot like a Chinese woman with bound feet.
5. Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides)
A rather mundane houseplant, although certainly easy enough to grow, it has flat round leaves shaped like a coin and therefore are clearly able to bring prosperity to the household that displays it. Give the Chinese money plant strong to average indoor light and do let it dry out quite a bit before watering thoroughly. Don’t expect flowers, though: it almost never bloom indoors. It’s currently very popular in garden centers and available all year long, so should be easy to find.
6. Chinese Sacred Lily (Narcissus tazetta chinensis)
Clearly not a lily, but rather a narcissus, this easy-to-force bulb with a white flower and golden eye (gold for money, of course) and an outstanding perfume represents good fortune and prosperity. You’ll find pots of it everywhere in China at Chinese New Year, and indeed throughout Asia, but it’s very hard to find in North America and Europe. So, you might have to skip on this one for your Year of the Ox celebrations. Or, next fall, buy bulbs (those you can find) and force them for next year’s occasion. Read up on how to grow this fascinating plant, as well as its history, in the blog article The Little Bulb That Conquered China.
7. Orchids (Phalaenopsis cvs and others)
Everybody, everywhere, loves orchids and China is no different. For the Chinese, they represent refinement, luxury, fertility, abundance and innocence. These days, phalaenopsis orchids are the most popular orchids sold as plants both in China and around the world, but there are plenty of others as well. And cut flower orchids, mostly dendrobiums and cymbidiums, are also very big. More on how to grow phalaenopsis here, although, to be honest, in China, they’re often just treated like annuals and tossed after they finish blooming.
8. Pomelo (Citrus maxima)
Not the plant, but the fruit, and it is often offered as a gift, usually two at a time, as a pair brings better luck. The pomelo looks vaguely like a huge grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi), but lacks its bitterness. It’s eaten raw or cooked. The fruit symbolizes family unity and good luck.
9. Pussy Willow (Salix spp.)
Well, where I live, mid-February is still deepest, coldest winter and local pussy willows would certainly not yet in bloom in time for Chinese New Year’s time, but in China, where much of the country has a very mild climate and very short winter, they have entire pussy willow farms at various elevations so the flowers burst open just on time. Not that people bring pussy willow plants into their homes. Instead, they’re offered cut stems, sold in bundles, and often stained exotic colors rather than the usual whites and pale grays of the homegrown variety. They symbolize renewal, growth and the arrival of prosperity. A good florist should carry them in the Occident, or try an Asian market.
10. Peach Blossoms (Prunus persica)
Again, offered not offered as a plant, but bunches of cut branches to be placed in the household’s most valuable vase. Bright and pink and sweetly scented, they represent prosperity and growth… and romance, so if you’re single, you know what you need. And spring, of course. Again, you might need to try a florist or an Asian market if you want to purchase any. And, outside of Asia, they’re going to be expensive!
Or try plum blossoms (Prunus mume), representing endurance, perseverance, reliability, and courage.
11. Nipplefruit (Solanum mammosum)
Subject of a recent Laidback Gardener blog, this brilliantly orange, oddly shaped fruit symbolizes the longevity of the family as well as wealth and riches. It’s hugely popular in China at New Years, but much harder to find in the West, unless you grow your own from seed. More about it here: Weird but Wonderful: The Nipplefruit.
Well, that’s enough! But there are plenty of other plants and flowers that are really hot items at Chinese New Years. So, this year, celebrate the Year of the Ox with lush and plants and flowers.