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The lost art of chrysanthemum cultivation

For such a dreamlike flower, chrysanthemums can be a nightmare to grow. Despite its idyllic reputation among China’s literati, the actual work of cultivating and picking chrysanthemum is backbreaking: A single mu of chrysanthemum flowers (roughly 667 square meters) requires between four and five laborers to harvest, not to mention the complicated work involved in processing the flowers into tea.

Perhaps that explains why traditional tea-growing areas along China’s developed coast began abandoning the the crop in the 1990s and 2000s. Tongxiang, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, has been a center of hangbaiju, or “whited-colored chrysanthemum,” cultivation for nearly four centuries. Indeed, according to China’s official agricultural products registry, true hangbaiju is defined by its terroir: It can only be produced in a small part of Tongxiang.

Among consumers of chrysanthemum tea, these changes have gone largely unnoticed. White chrysanthemum tea remains readily available in stores and online, in part because tea producers have exploited loopholes in the product regulation system. Just as some merchants soak non-local crabs in Yangcheng Lake to package them as authentic hairy crabs, white chrysanthemum gets imported into Tongxiang, processed, and resold as Tongxiang tea.

But the loss of Tongxiang’s white chrysanthemum plantations isn’t just about tea. The flower was part of a diversified and delicate farming equilibrium: Farmers in the surrounding Hangjiahu Plain cultivated it alongside silkworm, local sheep breeds, mustard greens, rice, pond fish, and other biota. Sheep manure and silkworm droppings fertilized the chrysanthemum, while chrysanthemum leaves protected and nourished the soil. In addition to maximizing land use and productivity, these practices preserved the earth and reduced farmers’ dependence on external fertilizers.


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