Narcissus flower colours the New Year

Update: February, 08/2016 - 07:46
Young green thumb: Cuong's granddaughter enjoys a vase of narcissus flowers nurtured by her grandfather. — Courtesy Photos of Nguyen Phu Cuong

Once only access ible to wealthy families, the Narcissus flower has come back into style as a delicate way to ring in the lunar New Year. Le Huong reports.

Peach and apricot blossoms have been the traditional flowers for Tet (lunar New Year) for a long time in Viet Nam.

For Hanoians, enjoying thuy tien (Narcissus) plants during Tet has also been an elegant hobby dating back a long time.

The art of Narcissus bulb carving, or stunning the plant so that it is in full bloom on the first days of the Lunar New Year, requires real passion, skill, and a lot of time and creativity.

A few Hanoians still maintain the hobby, and Nguyen Phu Cuong, 70, is one of them.

Careful craft: Cuong spends hours carving narcissus bulbs a few weeks before every lunar New Year. — VNS Photos Le Huong

Every year, a few weeks before Tet, he spends hours sitting quietly in a corner of his small apartment on the 5th floor of an old living quarter in Thanh Cong Ward in Ha Noi, patiently moving the sharp end of a specially designed knife to carve a Narcissus bulb little by little.

He uses the sharp ends of the knife to force little leaves and flower buds inside to emerge. In order to limit the height of future buds and leaves, he cut a part at the ends of the peduncles and leaves.

He works for several days that way to trim dozens of Narcissus bulbs every year.

The Narcissus is likened to a golden cup and a silver dish as it is yellow inside and paper white outside.

Beauty to behold: A beautiful Narcissus plant displays five elements at once: its pure white root, which grows in the water like a waterfall; its strong green leaves; its simple and elegant flowers; its overall well-proportioned display in the vase; and the sweet scent of the flowers.

Each flower cluster is actually a work of art by Cuong and is the result of his cultivating of the Narcissus bulbs for weeks. He then gives most of the flower to his relatives and friends as unique gifts for the Lunar New Year.

"I trim it this way to control the leaves, flowers and the total figure of the entire flower vase as I want," Cuong told Viet Nam News while carefully carving on the bulb. "To me, a beautiful Narcissus vase should have flowers blossom higher than leaves, which often roll underneath as a foundation for the whole layout."

Cuong further said that the vase may have a few or many flowers depending on the natural strength of the bulb and intention of the grower.

"Carving the Narcissus bulbs ahead of Tet so that they blossom fully at Tet is an old hobby of Hanoians between 1940 and 1950," Cuong said. "At that time, only a wealthy family could afford the hobby because Narcissus bulbs were rare and very expensive."

"I remember my grandfather maintained the hobby for many years when I was a child. I still remember the sweet and subtle fragrance of the Narcissus," he said.

The hardship of wars and the period of State economic subsidies then hindered his hobby. In the spring of 1996, Cuong accidentally came across Narcissus bulbs at a flower market near Quoc Tu Giam (Literature Temple) in downtown Ha Noi.

He tried to cultivate the bulb but the flowers did not bloom as much as he wanted.

Not until 2003, could he collect some books and see some video clips describing the carving of Narcissus bulbs and enjoying the flower's beauty.

Cuong then met an old Hanoian living in the United States, who was a master in this art. The elder taught him some basic tricks in trimming Narcissus bulbs and offered him a professional knife for the task.

"His knowledge opened my eyes and his knife facilitated me to control the growth of the plant better," he recalled.

Cuong believed that a beautiful Narcissus vase offers people five factors at once: its white pure root, which grows in the water like a waterfall; its green strong leaves; and its simple and elegant flowers; in addition to the total well-shaped layout of the vase, and the pure sweet scent of the flowers.

"The complete flower vase should look graceful, exquisite, fresh and natural, and not too artificially formed in a complicated way," he said.

Budding hobby

Though the hobby is not very popular among today's Hanoians, more and more young people are following the art.

Cuong said he is willing to share his experience in the field to help popularise and preserve the tradition in today's busy life.

Whoever comes to ask him for guidance, provided they show their passion, Cuong teaches him or her for free.

Nguyen Thu Trang, 25, is among his followers. She can now make beautiful Narcissus vases every Tet and has passed on her passion to some other friends.

"I have loved the Narcissus since I read an essay on the hobby of trimming Narcissus bulbs for Tet by noted writer Vu Bang," Trang said. "When I studied at the university, I read some materials on the internet and tried to trim the bulbs."

Her first plant was not as beautiful as she wanted but it did bloom.

"It shed a wonderful scent," Trang recalled. "I dubbed it 'fairy scent'."

For the past three years, Trang and some of her friends have been buying Narcissus bulbs from China around a month before Tet. They have then gathered together, taught one another trimming skills, kept a diary for each vase while they nurtured the bulb with clean water, to draw on the experience themselves.

Tradition: Every year, Trang's friends gather a few weeks before Tet to carve narcissus bulbs.

After being trimmed so that the leaves and flower buds are exposed, the bulb is soaked in water for two days and nights so that all the resin emerges. The bulb is then cleaned by a small hair brush and then put in a bowl of water. Root, leaves and flower buds will grow day by day. After around 20 days, the flowers bloom. During the whole process, the water should be changed twice a day so that the bulb stays in very fresh water all the time.

"The art of Narcissus bulb carvingtrains people to have the virtues of patience, capability to judge, understanding of the plant," Cuong said.

Nguyen Duc Dung, another Narcissus fan, said young people and elders may have different opinions on the beauty of the flower.

"Yet, we have one thing in common - passion and free time," Dung said.

Cuong always joked to his followers that keeping the art requires "gold". He means "time".

For Hanoians, enjoying thuy tien (Narcissus) during the tet has also been an elegant hobby dating back to a long time. The art of Narcissus bulb carving, or stunning the plant so that it is in full bloom on the first days of the Lunar New Year, requires real passion, skill, and a lot of time and creativity. —  VNS Video Le Huong

The Narcissus can be put in cups or bowls of various shapes depending on its (the flowers and leaves) figure.

Containers can be made of various materials such as crystal, glass and baked clay. The latter used to be the most popular material for holding the flowers in the past as it absorbs water and helps cool the water. — VNS