Wuhan's seedy side

An array of seed shops in Zhongshan Lu
It is common for Chinese cities to have shops specializing in a particular type of products to concentrate in a particular small area of the city. There is a street in Yangzhou full of cell phone shops, blocks in Guangzhou where every shop cells electronic components, and of course there are garment districts. But in Wuhan's central Zhongshan St, just a block north of the gigantic Wuchang Railway Station, there is something that may surprise many an urbanite: an entire block of shops - several dozens of them - selling vegetable seeds. With the train station nearby, and a bus station across the street, the place apparently is convenient enough for customers arriving from rural areas.
Beans etc. sold in bulk
Inside a seed shop in Nanjing

A surprisingly large array of seeds are sold in small packets: on the outside, not much bigger than those familiar to North American or Australian backyard gardeners, but loaded rather more generously. (Something like 10 grams of seeds, while an American retailer these days would often sell seeds in milligrams!) Many packets sport mysterious names of innumerable Chinese greens and beans that are often seen in China's farmers markets and restaurants, but rarely elsewhere. Other packets, although full of text, don't even seem to name the vegetable in question - apparently, the seed companies feel that the picture is enough. Many such small packets are priced at just Y1-3 (US$0.15-0.50), although some varieties cost quite a bit more. Some seeds, especially larger ones (such as corn), appear in progressively bigger packets, up to 1 kg in weight; watermelon seeds appear in cute little cans. Others (beans etc) are sold in bulk, some by weight, some by count. For example, the huge dao dou 刀豆 beans, a.k.a. jackbeans, went four for Y1 in one of the shops; that would be about 25 beans for $1.

I would be curious to know to which extent Chinese farmers rely on shops like this to get their seed supply every year (after all, some are hybrid varieties, and the packages often say that you can't save seeds), and to which extent they would just come to a shop like this just one to buy some new variety, intending to save the seeds in future years. In any event, the trade appears brisk enough, both in August and in February.

Some vegetables however, can't be started with material from a seed shop: you apparently need to be a farmer who knows another farmer... Luhao (芦蒿), a prized specialty of the lower Yangtze area (tastes a bit like asparagus to me) is said to propagate only by root material, rather than by seeds. Although shanyao (山药; something that looks like a remarkably long and rather expensive radish, and tastes to me rather like a potato) is propagated by seeds, its seeds are said not to be commonly available commercially either.

Wuhan, of course, is not unique. Other cities have such seed shop blocks too: Nanjing's is in the market at Dong Fang Cheng 60 (less than a kilometer east of the Eastern Bus Station), and reportedly Hong Kong has an area like this as well, in Sheung Wan Connaught Road West. While places like this are interesting to visit for their educational value, if you actually intend to take some seeds outside China, it is advisable to become aware of your country's applicable quarantine laws and regulation.

No comments:

Post a Comment