January 8th, 2003
Narcissus tazetta and Chinese Sacred Lily

photo Narcissus tazetta Grand Primo
2003-01-08. Grand Primo Narcissus tazetta italicus. Austin, TX. Zone 8.

The scent of paperwhites ushers in the New Year. I can’t stand the scent of the modern paperwhites, ‘Ziva’ and ‘Galilee’, but I’ve love the scent of their tazetta relative, Narcissus tazetta v. italicus. It is the scent of the first flower of the New Year.

I had always thought that N. italicus had a lovely, citrus-y scent. But over Christmas, when JQS was working at my desk, he said, “Mom, do you smell airplane glue or something?” I came over concerned and then laughed. “It’s just the flowers.”

If you don’t like the scent of paperwhites, try growing Narcissus tazetta v orientalis (the Chinese Sacred Lily) instead. It is scented with orange essence. I always buy bulbs to force and plant them out in the garden afterward where they come back year after year.

photo: Narcissus tazetta v. italicus

In this photo, the N. italicus are on the left and the Chinese Sacred Lily on the right. In my garden the N. italicus grow on stalks 20 to 24 inches tall, the Chinese Sacred Lily on stalks 12 to 14 inches tall.

The foliage of N. italicus is a much deeper green than the gray-green paperwhites, the strappy leaves are almost an inch wide. They grow straight and tall in the fall and finally flop over. Although they are my first narcissus to bloom, the leaves are the last to disappear in the spring. Sometimes it is May before I can divide them.

I always plant them where I can see them through a window from inside the house. Then even on a miserably cold day like today, I can enjoy the garden.

In Other People’s Gardens

I don’t really know if my bulbs really are Grand Primo as they were in the garden when I arrived. Mine don’t look anything like the photo at Old House Gardens.

However, mine do look like the Grand Primo pictured in this photo from the Stephen F. Austin State University. Notice how the cup is much smaller and a paler lemon yellow. Also the petals are slimmer and more pointed, often twisting back.

Although the same photo is enlarged here and these flowers do not have as narrow tapering petals as mine.

Update: February 25, 2004
I’ve corrected this post because I determined that I had two different Narcissus tazetta growing in my garden. For more information, see A Tale of Two Narcissus


by M Sinclair Stevens

9 Responses to post “Narcissus tazetta and Chinese Sacred Lily”

  1. From Rose:

    I force Chinese sacred lilies in water every winter, very healthy leaves with fat buds, but the buds dried before the flowers open. Can anyone tells me why?

    Perhaps your house is too hot and dry. If it is just the outside covering of the bud that has dried so that the flowers can’t break through it, you can carefully snip the top with scissors and peel the papery enclosure off, releasing the flowers. — mss

  2. From D. Ho:

    Someone told me narcissus that have been forced indoors cannot be grown successflly in a garden afterwards. Is this true?

    Yes and no. Narcissus that are sold to be forced have been pumped up with fertilizers, so that they flower themselves into exhaustion. So most people think it’s more productive to buy your garden bulbs separately. However, here in the south, the winters are warm enough to plant out the bulbs as soon as they are finished flowering. Usually they’ll flower again, if not the next year, then the year after. So the answer depends on where you live and whether you have enough space to nurture bulbs that might not do well for a couple of years. — mss

  3. From Diane:

    In your opinion what’s the best smelling narcissus. I hate the scent of paperwhites.

    Both ‘Quail’ and ‘Trevithian’ are sweetly orange-scented. Neither is as early-blooming as a paperwhite and I’ve never tried to force them. As a substitute for paperwhites, I often force ‘Chinese Sacred Lily’ which I think is very pleasantly scented. — mss

  4. From Vincent Comer (Seattle WA):

    Just wondered if you have a good source for the Chinese narcissus bulbs…. they are quite expensive here. Let me know.

    Sorry, I don’t know of any source. I bought a dozen bulbs in Austin at Gardens several years ago. For mail order, I recommend McClure and Zimmerman because they usually have hard-to-find bulbs and good quality and service. However, their prices are correspondingly high. You get what you pay for. — mss

  5. From JM Carleton:

    A source for the Chinese narcissus bulbs is Daffies at http://www.buydaffodilbulbs.com — he goes to China and brings the bulbs back himself — they are quite lovely forced in water/gravel.

  6. From Fred:

    I just purchased a flowering Chinese Sacred Lily from a Chinese supermarket. It is sitting in a shallow pan of water. The bulb is growing nicely with bunches of flower. How do I take care of it during blooming and post blooming so that I will get a second flowering next year?

    See above. — mss

  7. From Cristina:

    Like Fred who made the comment on 1-25-05, . also purchased the Chinese Sacred Lily from a Chinese supermarket. Please advise me how to take care of them post blooming. The flowers have dried out and now all the leaves are wilting.

    These are bulbs, not potted plants. They bloom, the wilt, and eventually the leaves die down. If, during their growing season, they’ve gotten plenty of light and food, they might flower next year. Chances are though, they will simply multiply and not produce bulbs large enough to flower. — mss

  8. From Charlie Shi:

    I was from China. I love the scent of the “Chinese sacred lily”. It’s Chinese name in English is actually “water fairy” (not really sacred). It is a lovely forced bulb for the Chinese new year in winter/early spring. There is a traditional art for these bulbs in China. Before selling them, the artists use little knife cut off small pieces in the bulb. As a result,the plant grows into specific form with curly leaves and strangely shaped flower stalks. I saw the bulbs in shapes such as a flower busket, a peacock, and a crane before. Kind of interesting … also, do you know there is a mini-peony type. Those look like little roses but smell just as sweet and elegant. I saw on TV in the 80s that a strange mutation was found. The flowers of those “Chinese sacred lilies” were purple-blue. I did not know if the gardeners kept the breed.

    Wow! That’s really interesting. Thanks for sharing. — mss

  9. From cherie (Hawaii):

    Would the chinese narcissus survive post blooming if I plant in pot. I bought it for Chinese New Years and it was so nice, I would like to keep growing it. From the other questions and statements above, it sounds like it may not survive. Right now it is sitting in water with some rocks but the leaves are wilting and turning yellow and the flowers are dying. I live in Hawaii, so maybe it is too hot here. Any suggestions?

    You’re right. It might be too hot…not in the summer time but in the winter. Many narcissus require a certain number of days under 40F degrees to form buds. I don’t know about Chinese Sacred lilies, but although I have great clumps of green, I’ve gotten very few flowers these last few years. This year after they die down, I’m going to dig them up and try chilling them in the refrigerator to see if that will get them blooming again.
    By the way, just because the leaves die down doesn’t mean it’s dead. It’s a bulb. It won’t stay green all year around like some potted plant. Let the leaves die down and replant the bulb– mss