My plain hardy chrysanthemums
Chrysanthemums are an iconic autumn flower. Pots of blooming mums are sold at every garden center, supermarket, and roadside stand by the end of August. Their rich colors of garnet, purple, bronze and brilliant yellow or pale cream have tempted me many times. I buy them, but am mildly disappointed that even after I put them in the ground they maintain a strict military stance, never softening into a graceful slouch. Neither have I been able to overwinter them with much success. Maybe because the roots of these potted blooms don’t have sufficient time to gain strength before winter closes in.
I finally decided to buy my hardy garden chrysanthemums in the spring from a nursery. This opened up a whole world of chrysanthemum forms beyond the small familiar flowers in supermarket pots. The National Chrysanthemum Society lists 13 types of chrysanthemum blossom, from those with petals that curve up, or curve down, those with a pom pom form, those with spoon petals, or quilled petals, or graceful spider petals, or those that are so exotic that don’t fit easily into any classification.
Some chrysanthemums are too tender for zone 5, but there are many that are perfectly happy here if they are given a well drained soil with organic matter and lots of sun. They need to be kept watered all season; the amount of watering will increase as the plant becomes bigger, and then blooms.
To make them grow bushier and more floriferous, pinching them back, or tipping them, should be done when the plants are about six inches tall. Pinch or cut them back one or two inches, to a pair of leaves. Don’t cut them in the middle of the stem. Repeat this pinching back once or twice before July 1.
For the past couple of years I have grown ‘Starlet’, a golden-bronze spoon mum. The petals are like little tubes that open at the end in a ‘spoon’ shape. I also have a mum that looks like a pinky lavender daisy with a sunny gold center that I think is named ‘Daisy Lavender.’ Both of these came from Bluestone Perennials and have done very well. ‘Daisy Lavender’ didn’t begin to bloom until the beginning of October, but ‘Starlet’ began in early September and both are still blooming even after a couple of frosts.
Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’ or Sheffies
My third mum, bought at Wilder Hill Gardens in 2011 was identified only as a pink daisy. I later found out it is Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’, more familiarly called a Sheffie, or Sheffield daisy. It is a strong grower and its spikier pink petals have a salmon tint. I love having these exuberant blooms this late in the season. They also make good cut flowers for bouquets.
The potted mums for sale in the fall don’t seem very romantic, but the history of the chrysanthemum is filled with romance. The Chinese were growing chrysanthemums by 1500 B.C. They did not look like football mums or the exotic spider mums, but more like a daisy. Still they were popular flowers.
They reached Japan, via Korea, by 500 C.E. By that time they were looking more dramatic and by 800 C.E. a single 16 petalled chrysanthemum blossom became the imperial crest. The ninth day of the ninth Lunar month is still a holiday set aside to celebrate the chrysanthemum.
The Japanese word for chrysanthemum is Kiku, and I was lucky enough to visit the New York Botanical Garden in 2009 just in time to see the stunning KIKU exhibit that featured many of the ways that the Japanese grew chrysanthemums for display.
When we lived in China I noticed the Chinese don’t use the variety of flowers in their gardens as Americans and the English. Instead, they create different forms of a single variety, and assign metaphorical meanings. Considered one of the Four Gentlemen (the plum blossom for winter, the orchid for spring, bamboo for summer) the chrysanthemum is a symbol of autumn as well as long life and wisdom. There are many old tales of bureaucrats who give up life at court to retire to their mountain hermitages to care for their chrysanthemums and find peace.
The 17th century botanist Linnaeus gave the chrysanthemum its name, combining two Greek words for gold and flower. However, it did not gain much popularity in England until Victorian times when the Royal Horticultural Society sent the famous plant hunter Robert Fortune to China to bring back new varieties.
Kiku exhibit – mum cascades
Today, November 2, the Annual Chrysanthemum Show at Smith College Lyman Plant House opens and will run until Sunday, November 17. Hours are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day. This stunning show features many brilliant chrysanthemums as specimens and as spectacular cascades which take months of painstaking work to create.
The Church Gallery is also featuring an exhibit of a very different type of plant, maize. Maize: Mysteries of an Ancient Grain is an exhibit will explore the science of this most significant crop and explain why it continues to surprise us today. Edward S. Buckler, Research Geneticist at the USDA, Adjunct Professor at Cornell and one of the exhibition’s developers will speak on Friday, November 15 at 7:30 pm. His talk will focus on various agricultural issues and how new technologies, information and resources can increase world wide food security. For more information go to the Smith College website www.Smith.edu/garden.