After winter's gloom, bright trumpets herald the advent of springtime

Zhu Ying
Narcissus cultivation on Chongming Island provides Shanghai residents with a favorite flower for Spring Festival.
Zhu Ying

There's a 100-year-old tale on Chongming Island about a farmer named Shi Gulang carrying a bouquet of his homegrown narcissus to visit relatives in downtown Shanghai.

On the way, he stopped to rest and was approached by a foreigner who was taken with the beauty of the flowers. The foreigner asked how much it would cost to buy them. Shi, who spoke no English, held up two fingers to indicate 0.20 yuan. The foreigner misunderstood and gave him 2 yuan, or 10 times the asking price.

True or not, the tale of the excited farmer returning home and starting a narcissus farm lies at the heart of a successful industry that is flourishing on the island today.

Narcissus, named for a hunter known for his beauty in Greek mythology, are a family of perennial spring flowers grown from bulbs. The most well-known are the daffodil and jonquil, which have distinctive trumpets. In Chinese, narcissus are known as shuixian, or "water fairy."

The flowers typically bloom around the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, which falls on February 1 this year. They are cheerful reminder that the worst of winter may be past and have long been a symbol of reunion and purity in the Chinese culture.

Flower markets in Shanghai fill with cut and potted narcissus in the run-up to the Lunar New Year. One of the most common varieties is the paperwhites, which are fragrant and easily grown in indoor pots with just some water and pebbles.

The flowers no doubt come from Chongming Island, one of the two major cultivation sites in China. The narcissus grown there are famous for plentiful buds, large petals and a sweet floral fragrance.

After winter's gloom, bright trumpets herald the advent of springtime
Ti Gong

Narcissus typically bloom around the Chinese New Year.

But let us return to the Shi family who are credited with starting the modern industry. Narcissus growing has remained in the family down the generations, with Shi Kesong and his son Shi Hao carrying on the tradition today.

The family are the only survivors of the once four great flower-growing families in Shanghai. The other three were the Zhao family, which cultivated chrysanthemums; the Yu family, which grew carnations; and the Ling family, which specialized in bonsais.

By the early 1930s, some 33 hectares of land on Chongming was devoted to narcissus growing, and 80 percent of the blooms sold in Shanghai came from the island.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Shi farm expanded into a large plantation. Shi Kesong spent his childhood in the greenhouses, helping adults peel back the outer coverings of the bulbs to encourage earlier blooms.

"I remember from childhood that the greenhouse filled with narcissus was a place of warmth and happiness," said Shi Kesong, 67. "In winter, my mother often bathed me amid the fragrance of narcissus in the greenhouse, which was quite warm even in freezing temperatures."

However, the happy times were interrupted during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when flower cultivation was considered decadent and forbidden. The Shi family had to throw away all its bulbs, with several local breeds becoming almost extinct.

Narcissus cultivation did not return to the fore until the 1980s, when 300 sacks of narcissus bulbs weighing more than 25 tons were planted on the island. The bulbs, imported from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, didn't adapt well to the Chongming environment.

Shi Hao said his father, faced by a squeeze in household income, visited villages across Chongming, buying up what narcissus he could find for 0.01 yuan each and selling them for five times that price in downtown Shanghai.

"I had a bamboo shoulder pole to carry the flowers to the Shiliupu dock," Shi Kesong said. "Then I used a tricycle to carry them to market."

In the process, he noticed that the local breeds of the flowers grew much better. He carefully noted the names and the addresses of every local narcissus farmer, laying the foundation for his business today.

After winter's gloom, bright trumpets herald the advent of springtime
Ti Gong

Shi Kesong (left) and his son pick narcissus for market at their Chongming nursery.

"My father ran a gardening business in the 1990s," said Shi Hao. "His work included the gardens at Shanghai Grand Theater and Shanghai Concert Hall. Moving from one place to another, my father lost his sense of belonging to any project."

So in 2000, the elder Shi and his son returned to the work of their ancestors – growing narcissus. The map of growers his father had compiled years earlier proved a treasure. The pair visited all the farms listed on it and collected 1,250 kilograms of local-breed bulbs. By 2009, they had established a flower-growing cooperative.

"The villagers laughed at us and thought we were stupid," said the younger Shi.

But the family had the last laugh.

Its farm has grown from 0.2 hectares to 33 hectares, with nearly 110,000 square meters of greenhouses.

After winter's gloom, bright trumpets herald the advent of springtime
Ti Gong

Workers tend the flowers in giant greenhouses on the Shi family farm.

The Shi family participated in the 10th China Flower Expo held on Chongming Island last year, not far from their farm in the town of Xianghua.

With cold storage facilities for the bulbs – which require cold to bloom well – the family pioneered a technique to allow blossoms in different seasons of the year, even summer.

The floral expo was a shot in the arm for the local narcissus industry. According to Shi, sales this year are expected to reach 6 million yuan (US$940,000), with up to 80,000 pots of narcissus sold. That's almost twice the 2021 total.

"We can even tell which narcissus will bloom on the first day of the Lunar New Year," said Shi Kesong.

"Many of our customers have sent us messages expressing their desire for the flowers at that time because they are a good omen."

Shi offers some tips on growing narcissus in pots:

  1. Let the plant bathe in sunshine for around six hours every day.
  2. Keep the room temperature between 5 and 18 degrees Celsius.
  3. Add water until the level reaches just below the base of the bulbs, but no higher or they will rot.
  4. After the narcissus finish blooming, cut off 60 percent of their stems and roots, and plant the bulbs in soil for next year's flowering.

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