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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Grant

Tea Time Tales - Legend of the Balsam (Impatiens) Flowers

Enjoy this legend with a cup of luxury green tea.

Young women in Korea have traditionally colored their fingernails with garden balsam (Impatiens) flowers. After grinding the petals of the flowers, mixing them with vinegar and adding it to cotton, they would wrap their fingernails tight with the cotton. The next day, the fingernails would turn scarlet. For girls in ancient Korea, the red, pink and bright orange flowers served as a natural manicure to show off their pretty hands. But it comes from a sad legend.

The legend dates back to the late 13th century, when the Korean kingdom of Goryeo was ruled by King Chung-seon. At the time, Korea was overpowered by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of China, and the king was sent to the Chinese court as a political hostage. One night, the king had a strange dream. In his dream, a young woman was playing the gayageum, which is the Korean zither-like string instrument. While the girl was playing the musical instrument to entertain the king, blood was dripping from her fingers.

When he woke up, the king summoned all the maids in the Chinese court. Among the court ladies, he found a girl who wrapped her fingers with white cloth. It turned out that she was one of the Korean women who were forcibly sent to the Yuan court as a tribute. She was dying her fingernails with garden balsam flowers. Just like the woman in the king’s dream, the maid with scarlet fingernails played the gayageum for the king. The music reflected her homesickness and also contained her hope that the king would be able to return home safe and sound. The king was deeply impressed by her loyalty and he also felt pity for the young girl, who had been taken to an unfamiliar country, separated from her family back home.

Later, the king helped Emperor Wuzong of Yuan ascend the throne. Thanks to his service, he could return home. The king recalled the poor girl in the Chinese court. He wanted to bring her back home, but he heard that she had already died. Feeling sad and miserable, the king remembered that she was wrapping her fingers with cloth. In memory of the deceased woman, the king ordered his officials to plant garden balsam flowers in the yard of the royal palace.

From then on, the flowers spread widely and dying fingernails with the flowers became a tradition. It was a sort of beauty treatment in old days when cosmetics were rare. Also, the tradition was believed to prevent diseases, as people thought that the color red could expel evil spirits. Coloring fingernails with the flowers is still practiced today, and there is a folk belief that one’s first love will come true if the color remains on her fingernails until the first snow falls.


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