Youtan Poluo growing on Buddha statue.
The myth that has grown up around the plant called the Youtan Poluo or Udumbara has clung on almost as stubbornly as the nonexistent roots with which the plant itself clings on. Said to bloom only once every 3,000 years, this occasion is supposed to mark the arrival of a future king. Let’s see how much truth there is in this fairytale.
The tiny white flowers on filigree stems are actually not much to look at and could easily be overlooked. Honestly, would you look twice if you found something like this growing in your house? Good that Mr. Ding, a farmer of China’s northeastern Liaoning province, was more observant and curious when he was cleaning the steel pipes in his garden.
Mr. Ding with the "flowers" growing on steel pipes in his garden.
That well publicized discovery in 2007 triggered many more in Taiwan, Korea, the US and Germany. Since then, some of the mysterious flowers have been identified as the eggs of lacewings – whose females lay their eggs on threadlike stalks, similar to human hairs, to keep them apart and thus prevent cannibalism among the aggressive young after hatching.
End of story for many but we here at Environmental Graffiti like to dig deeper. Because some of the flowers like the ones below could not be identified as lacewing eggs. They have a stem with branches and emit a distinct smell of sandalwood – and these indeed have been identified as the Udumbara flower of the Ficus racemosa tree.
Because the flower is not very big and therefore difficult to see, a legend developed over the years to explain the absence or supposed rarity of the flower – namely that the Udumbara flower is said to bloom only once every 3,000 years, which meant it came to symbolize rarely occurring events such as the sighting of a Buddha.
The Udumbara flower and tree have great significance in Hinduism and Buddhism (in the latter, it can also refer to the blue lotus, Nila udumbara) and in both philosophies, flowers play a great role and often symbolize virtues like purity or fertility.
A video of the rare occurrence on Korean TV.
It is interesting to note that the first sighting of an Udumbara flower was in July 1997 at a Buddha statue in a temple in Korea, exactly 3,024 lunar years after Buddhism first emerged. So, given that compared to three millennia, a few decades here or there is nothing, Youtan Poluo seems to be pretty much right on time.
A plant blooming every 3,000 years does seem like a stretch but then again, the plant world never ceases to amaze. Many plants bloom only once in their lifetime, like the Talipot palm for example, which does so once every 30 to 80 years. The Kurinji plant blooms once every 12 years, and the Titan arum lily every few decades in the wild and even rarer in cultivation.
The Talipot palm tree.
As far as the Udumbara is concerned, it’s left to note that many flower sightings occurred in Southeast Asia where lacewings are not very common; they mainly exist in North America and Europe. There’s also the strong, pleasant smell and the fact of the flowers opening and closing that the lacewing egg theory cannot explain.
Regardless of what you believe, the story behind Youtan Poluo is an intriguing one and the capacity to believe in a flower that comes into being every 3,000 years perhaps says more about us than the plant. One thing is clear: one tiny flower has surely caused a huge amount of excitement and brought a smile to many a face.
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