by Melanie Sievers
In a black document box up on a top shelf, there is a little plastic bag containing three tiny black seeds from the mu mian hua, 木棉花, the cotton tree flower. It is beloved in Guangzhou, a city known as Flower City for its lush year-round flora. It is the official city tree, the logo of Southern China airlines, and my favorite flower. For the three happiest years of my life I lived in Guangzhou and watched the big, red, waxy flowers bloom each March on very tall trees, then cast their fluffy seedpods - like snow - all over town. When it was time to say goodbye to China, I bought three paintings of the mu mian hua and collected some seeds as souvenirs.
In early to mid-February, around the time of the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), the buds begin to appear, blossoming as March approaches. All of Guangzhou is ablaze with a red canopy of beautiful flowers. Once in full bloom, each deep orange-red flower is about the size of my hand, pinky to thumb, over four inches in diameter. An individual flower is so heavy that when it falls to the ground, it makes a distinctly audible thud. The ground around each tree is littered in plentiful big red blossoms, each so robust and waxy that they are almost completely unblemished from their fall from great heights.
People hurry to gather the fallen flowers, easily amassing enough flowers to fill large baskets, which they then spread to dry in the sun for use as a tea or soup. Square patches of drying blossoms are spread all over town. With the passing of the gorgeous flowers comes an equally miraculous sight: the snowy white seed pods, that look like gigantic dandelion puffs, wafting in the breeze and settling on the ground in drifts. These seedpods are just as useful as the flowers. People hurry to gather the silky, soft puffs before they blow away to stuff into pillows and comforters. I loved the image of nestling into a cozy mu mian hua bed.
When I was told that I would be unable to renew my work visa, I took the bus to Wende Lu in Liwan District and searched every shop and stall for paintings of mu mian hua. I bought three and rolled them in a long plastic tube. They traveled with me on the long, long flight back to California. But I needn’t have bothered with souvenirs; the images of mu mian hua - in all its forms – along with all the sights, sounds, colors, and textures of my wonderful adopted home, Guangzhou, will blossom forever in my heart and in my mind. But just in case my memory fades, I have the seeds.
Melanie Sievers has retired from teaching three or four times, yet she is currently leading high school students through Oedipus and Macbeth in Stockton, CA. It seems you really can’t escape your destiny! In another life, she was an actress in NYC and has had many other lives in between. Melanie's best life so far was in Guangzhou, China where she taught high school Drama in a prestigious Chinese high school. Every so often she writes some poems, assembles some art pieces, and plays around creatively
Photographs of mu mian hua, 木棉花, cotton tree flower and tree by Mandy Wang 王黎.