Today, January 28, is the first day of the Lunar New Year. Though I do not celebrate this holiday, I have been aware of it since childhood. I grew up in California, and many of my classmates journeyed to celebrations in San Francisco, telling us about the festivities upon their return to school. San Francisco has been the scene of such celebrations since the Gold Rush era and now hosts the largest one outside of Asia.
The Lunar New Year is a moveable feast in that it begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice. In China, the festivities continue for 15 days. Though here we mark winter's halfway point on February 2, where I come from it is seen as the arrival of spring. Believe me, in Houston and L.A. folks are getting ready to head for the garden centers during February to get warm-season annuals established before it gets hot!
As part of the celebration, people purchase special plants to decorate their homes. The kumquat tree is a popular choice. Native to China, the kumquat is a miniature citrus fruit. Since 1895, it has been grown commercially in St. Joseph, Florida. The mature oval orange fruits are about the size of grapes. One eats it skin and all but the seeds. The skin is sweet and the pulp sour, giving a unique flavor burst to the taste buds. Kumquats make excellent marmalade and on the Greek island of Corfu are distilled into a liqueur.
A kumquat topiary dragon during a Vietnamese Tet festival.
As holiday decor, the plant is very carefully selected. It must have both ripe and green fruits so that they will be present throughout the festivities. The color orange represents wealth. The leaves symbolize luck so it is best to have buds as well as green ones. The branches and roots symbolize happiness.
In Vietnam, the yellow-flowered hoa mai tree is a popular choice because the large number of blossoms symbolizes wealth. Also known as the Vietnamese Mickey Mouse plant for its black fruits and red sepals, this slow-growing tree is a good bonsai subject. It is easily forced to bloom at the desired time by defoliating it four to six weeks before needed. Hoa mais are sold both as specimen plants and as flower-covered branches. One can even buy artificial ones loaded with golden silk flowers.
Illuminated hoa mai tree during Tet in Vietnam
Many of us have enjoyed placemat explanations of the 12 characters of the Chinese Zodiac. Those born in the year of the rooster--which begins Jan. 28--are said to be good workers, confident, loyal and honest.
Rooster topiary in Vietnam.
Now we have a second chance to make some changes in the new year. Let's resolve to plant something new in the garden!
Editor's Note: The photos in this article were taken by Ann Bartlett's daughter, Roxanne, during a family trip to Vietnam some years ago.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of experience with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.