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Villagers smell sweet success in wintersweet plants

(Xinhua)    13:15, January 31, 2021

Inspired by a tourist's off-hand remark, a remote village in southwest China reaps a bonanza from its essential oil production.

CHONGQING, Jan. 30 (Xinhua) -- An obscure village tucked away in southwest China's mountains has become one of the world's biggest producers of a unique essential oil, all because of a visitor's random question five years ago.

Jingguan Township, in Chongqing Municipality, is famous for its wintersweet plantation. For years, local villagers mainly depended on dried wintersweet flowers to make a living, though fresh flowers and shoots also contributed to sales.

Currently, the township grows about 667 hectares of wintersweet plants.

Suxin Village, under the jurisdiction of the township, is the epitome of the sprawling wintersweet industry. Each winter, the plant's heady aroma and beauty lure crowds of visitors to Suxin to appreciate the flowers blooming all over the local mountains.

In late 2015, a tourist from central China's Henan Province popped a random question after visiting the village. He asked why not try to retain the unique aroma of wintersweet?

The question inspired villager Li Wei.

"I was thinking about whether someone could preserve the wintersweet aroma," Li recalled.

After searching online, Li found that many factories were producing rose essential oils, but no mass production of wintersweet essential oil existed. He later came across a research report that hailed wintersweet essential oil as a product that "has high potential" but "yet to be developed."

Li was obsessed. In 2016, he spent 2,600 yuan (about 400 U.S. dollars) on distilling equipment and began his experiments on wintersweet flowers. When he saw the distilled liquid covered by a layer of oil, he smiled from ear to ear.

Li managed to extract about 100 mL of essential oil from 25 kg of fresh wintersweet flowers and put the oil into small tubes of 2 mL each. He then sold the oil online, with each milliliter priced at 198 yuan. It was a huge success.

Photo taken on Jan. 9 shows tourists snap selfies on a background of wintersweet flowers in Suxin Village, southwest China's Chongqing Municipality. (Xinhua/Qin Tingfu)

"I didn't realize that it would be so popular," Li said. "All my fellow villagers were surprised."

To get more flower supplies, Li helped establish a rural cooperative in the locality. The move pushed up wintersweet flower prices, with each kilogram of fresh flowers rising from 6 yuan to up to 16 yuan. It significantly increased the income of local farmers.

In 2017, Li purchased professional distilling equipment. In the beginning, the new equipment absorbed the oil and hampered production. Li then upgraded the equipment and solved the problem.

The next year, Li decided to up the ante. He and his wife bought different types of distilling equipment with more than 50,000 yuan. Thanks to the new equipment, the amount of essential oil skyrocketed to 5 liters that year, with both the purity and aroma improved significantly.

"A customer from Yunnan Province paid half of the money as a deposit and bought all the essential oil," Li said. "He also asked if we could make 10 liters a year."

In 2019, the couple switched from their small home studio to a big factory and bought more distilling equipment, allowing the annual production to reach 10 liters.

However, the aroma extracted by distillation was not up to the level of the original flower aroma. Last year, a Beijing-based company helped Li with an advanced, low-temperature extraction technique. It produced a concentrate with the real aroma.

Li has now set up six wintersweet purchasing sites in Jingguan Township, as the business continues to thrive.

"I think I saw the world's best wintersweet products here," said Li Siting, a business insider.

"The wintersweet concentrate has maintained the original aroma of the fresh flowers," she said. "It's top class, and I am sure it will become popular around the world."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Zhang Wenjie, Bianji)

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