New Year Roots

Words & Pictures by Mary Warner

Several Tết trees for sale weigh down a bicycle on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. 

Several Tết trees for sale weigh down a bicycle on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. 

At the first whiff of spring, I’d go out to the flowering trees in my yard and clip a branch to bring indoors when it was still crispy white outside. So when I was visiting Vietnam in early January, I was surprised to see row after row of the cotton candy tufts I’d force to bloom in a jar of warm water. 

A small kumquat tree laden with fruit in a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam. 

A small kumquat tree laden with fruit in a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam. 

This week, branches will adorn homes and businesses throughout Asia in celebration of the Lunar New Year. In Vietnam, Tết Nguyên Đán or “Tết” for short, is not complete with the purchase of a Tết tree or branch. In the north, the pink tufts are from peach (dao) trees, whereas in the south, the vibrant yellow or white blooms would mature to apricots (mai). But my favorite is the kumquat tree, specifically a miniature version, which is found everywhere during the holiday in Vietnam and symbolizes a family’s potential for fertility and prosperity in the new year. The more fruit the tree is laden with, the more luck it’s meant to bring. 

Daily fresh flowers in the home is lost on most Americans despite the barricade of them set up in most grocery stores. Given as gifts for special occasions, flowers are rarely a part of the decor, which is too bad. In addition to adding visual interest to a space, their subtle scent evokes our ancestry, which began in a garden after all. In Vietnam, the kumquat tree symbolizes several generations of family—from the buds, which represent the grandparents—to the light green leaves of the plant, which are the grandchildren.

But my favorite of them all is the flowering branches. Generations of growers pass on the ancient practice of nurturing these trees for the holiday. The sacrifice doesn’t go unnoticed. Some specimens are foot-long branches snipped and then bound to resemble a tumbleweed, while others are towering specimens plucked from the earth and corseted in similar fashion. Whatever their size, both are transported the same way: balanced on opposite sides of a scooter and zipped down the street, leaving behind a trail of petal confetti that celebrates spring. The peach and apricot branches hold meaning too, which stems from a Vietnamese legend that involves two deities who lived in a peach tree and protected the people from devils. To have the branches in your home is a way to protect your family, but they also represent prosperity.  

Before I left Vietnam, my partner wanted to buy his colleague a Tết tree, but couldn’t find one. So he settled on a flowering peach branch, particularly one of four we found weighing down a bicycle. On the way to work the next morning, he carried the bounded branch as its petals marked our march, and just before we arrived to our location, we stumbled upon a sea of orange. The corner was lined with varying sizes of kumquat trees, their jewel-like fruit glimmering peaks atop dark green leaves. You could see the fortune they symbolized. And so we stood there for a moment, taking in this good omen.

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