J Syst Evol ›› 1982, Vol. 20 ›› Issue (3): 371-379.
• Research Articles •
Chen Sing-Chi, Wu Ying-Xiang
Shui Xian, or the Chinese sacred lily, is one of the most famous ornamental flowers
in China under cultivation for a long time. Although over a hundred years ago M.
J. Roemer had discovered this charming flower and named Narcissus tazetta L. var.
chinensis, its origin remains a puzzle up to the present day. Some authors considered
it to be indigenous to China, while others held a contrary opinion, presuming that it is
adventitions. However, it is generally recognized that neither argument has been confirmed.
In Chinese literature, as we know, the first book that mentions the sacred lily
with a brief description is “You Yang Za Zu” by Duan Cheng-shi (?—863). It notes:
“Nax Zhi (=the sacred lily) came from Fu Lin Guo (now Italy), the root (bulb) as
large as an egg, leaves 4—5 Chi (a unit of lenth, = 1/3 metre) long, garlic-like, scape
from the centre of the leaves with flowers on its summit; flower 6-parted, redish-white
with its centre yellowish-red, sterile; it is growing in winter and becoming dead in summer.” Though this is evidently not indicative of the plant we deal with here, but of another breed of sacred lily, it will be seen from this citation that there was no other
plant known as Shui Xian than Nar Zhi in China during that time. The Chinese name
Shui Xian was in fact not found in the ancient Chinese literature until the Song
Dynasty (960—1279), a period in Chinese history leaving us no less than thirty pieces
of well-known poems on this plant, such as “Shui Xian Hum” by Lin Ban (1023—1089), “Yin Shui Xian” by Huan Ting-jian (1045—1105) and “Fu Shui Xian Hun”
by Zhu Xi (1130—1200). The Chinese sacred lily was very much admired in all these
poems as a very rare and curious flower, then being cultivated mainly in Hunan and
Hubei Provinces. But, unfortunately, no wild sacred lily has been reported from these
provinces ever since.
On the other hand, the Chinese sacred lily has recently been found growing wild in
some places of Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces along the sea coast. But it usually
grows as escaped plant in the places of human presence, for instance, around the temples
or houses ——a fact we gathered from field observations in Zhou Shan Islands off the east
coast of Zhejiang Province. It must be pointed out that almost all the flowers seen
there were: nipped by the frost and, therefore, would be unable to bloom normally. Probably this is usually the case with it, for early spring, when it comes into blooms, is the
coldest season of the year there. It is interesting to add that of all Chinese taxa of wind
Amaryllidaceae, the Chinese sacred lily is the only member that flowers in such a cold
season. The genus Narcissus is primarily distributed in the Mediterranean region and
Central Europe with a few species extending to Iran, Afganistan and Pakistan. None
but an entity occurs in the coast areas of Eastern Asia. This pattern of discontinuous
distribution is apparently very rare among the angiosperms, which seems to be an
unnatural mode of dispersal. Another important fact is its close resemblance both in
habit and flower feature to some varieties of Mediterranean N. tazetta L., to which it
belongs. And like most of them, the Chinese sacred lily, both wild and domesticated,
is also sterile—a remarkable character usually found in long-cultivated plants.
All the facts, as it appears to us, point to the same conclusion that the Chinese
sacred lily is an exotic plant, possibly introduced from the Mediterranean region before
the Song Dynasty. The early history indicated that the contacts between China and
some European countries were rather frequent particularly during the Tang Dynasty.
For example, from the 17th year of Tang Zhen Guan to the 10th year of Tang Kai Yuan
(A. D. 643—723), Fu Lin Guo (now Italy) had five times dispatched envoys to China.
Since Italy had once introduced a certain sacred lily into China probably as a present
to the emperor, it is very likely that she would have exported to China in other occasions another kind of sacred lily, which was subsequently called Shui (water) Xian
(celestial) by Chinese because of its beauty and water culture.
After its being introduced, the Chinese sacred lily was perhaps first cultivated in
the imperial court and then spreaded to families of the ruling class and scholars. So far
as our knowledge goes, the first poem written in praise of Shui Xian in China is “Yong
Shui Xian Itua” by Chen Juan (?—989). It appeared, in fact, over a hundred years
later than “You Yang Za Zu”. And after another five hundred years or so a botanical book “Ban Cao Hui Bian” by Wan Ji (1522—1566) first reported on this flower.
8o far there has been a considerable number of botanical works in China which also
include this beautiful flower. And, to-day, it has become one of the most popular ornamental flowers in this country, especially in the south.
Historically, there were two places in China where Shui Xian had been grown: Ja
Ding in Jiangsu Province and Zhang Zhou in Fujian Province. From the former,
unfortunately, nothing more is heard about the culture of this lovely flower to day.
But the latter remains the main growing centre of Shui Xian in China up to now.
Two clones are commercially propagated there, one with single flowers, and the otherwith double flowers, both selling equally well in Chinese New Year festival.
Chen Sing-Chi, Wu Ying-Xiang. Historical notes on Shui Xian—The Chinese sacred lily. J Syst Evol, 1982, 20 (3): 371-379.
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