Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Where are the Chrysanthemums?

Every year about this time I mourn the absence of old-fashioned garden chrysanthemums.   At one moment in time chrysanthemums as they had been disappeared, to be replaced by a ubiquitous sea of puffy yellow, russet and mauve supermarket mums.  Precisely alike, totally lacking in character, they pop up everywhere.  At three for $15 or thereabouts, you will see them at every house, on every scrap of lawn, or flanking every driveway… a limitless supply of uniformity.

Supermarket Chrysanthemums

Admittedly, the large and varied chrysanthemum family of spiders, quill and spoons are pretty labor-intensive, appealing to only the most dedicated gardeners.  Once installed in your perennial bed, chrysanthemums cannot be left alone and be expected to flourish from year to year.  Each spring they must be dug and divided, the center of the plant discarded along with the old root system, and the vigorous side shoots and their roots retained and replanted. 

You’ll wind up with a small plant, but it will shoot up at a healthy rate during the long growing season.  When the first shoots reach three to four inches, usually by May, the main stem is established well enough to start shaping the plant.  Pinch back the main stem to two or three leaves.  Each subsequent leaf stem gets pinched back to two good leaves.  This continues with each “break” (the new growth) until mid-July when pinching stops.

Single Mum

You must provide support by stout stakes, as the constant pinching produces big flowers heads.  You must also remember to side-dress monthly, as they are heavy feeders. 

Why do all this?  The flower heads are unparalleled in their beauty, and arrive at a time when virtually everything else in the garden is over.  The family is large, and the characteristics of the individual flowers vary widely.  Chrysanthemum flowers are composed of many individual rays or florets, and there are significant differences within the family. 

Spider Mum

The spider mums are distinguished by long, tubular rays, some of which grow longer than the rest and appear to be reaching out to catch you in their web.  Sometimes the tips are twisted or hooked, increasing the spider-like appearance. 

The single and semi-double mums are the ones you might still  find for sale in local nurseries at reasonable prices.  The spoons are similar to the semi-doubles, except that the individual tips of the rays are spoon-shaped.  They have an open center, but their cousins the quills do not; their florets are straight and tubular, with open ends.
Quill Mum

The giant “football” mums look like cheerleaders’ pompoms.  Technically, they are called irregular incurves.  The centers are fully closed, the florets curve inward, and the bottom edge has a slightly skirted effect.

Football Mum

Chrysanthemums are not easy to finds these days.  The 1970 catalog of White Flower Farms Nursery in Litchfield, Connecticut sold twenty decorative mums, three pompoms, three spiders and five spoons. In 2014, none.  The big perennial catalogs no longer supply chrysanthemums, but you can find sources and a useful handbook on the National Chrysanthemum Society’s website www.mums.org.

Chrysanthemums have a distinguished history.  The Chinese and Japanese have been growing them for over 3,000 years and you can see representations of mums in their textiles, screens and ceramics.  Visiting Buddhist monks brought the chrysanthemum from China to Japan, and the Japanese were enchanted with this flower, which they saw as a symbol of the sun.  It was so beloved of the early Emperors that the single chrysanthemum became the Emperor’s personal symbol, and he ruled from the chrysanthemum throne.  Chrysanthemum Day in Japan is still a significant festival event.
Japanese Textile

Although widely popular in the United States, in most of Europe chrysanthemums are funeral flowers.  In Italy, they are so closely associated with death that they are never used in a festive or celebratory context.  

In recent years, dahlias seem to have replaced chrysanthemums as the big, bold, showy fall addition to the garden.  They require a somewhat elaborate procedure if you wish to keep them from year to year.   To carry them through the winter, you have to let the first frost blacken the foliage.  Then dig them up, leaving two inches of stem.  Discard the damaged tubers, wash the good ones and put them in the sun to dry, turning them occasionally.  Each tuber, when thoroughly dry, then goes in its own plastic bag.  It’s closed tightly and stored in a cool, dark basement until spring.

A Selection Of Dahlias

I have not been successful at this, and I discard dahlias after the last frost and start with new tubers in the spring.  If you can’t find a good source for chrysanthemums try dahlias, but they are a poor substitute.  Having travelled infrequently enough to have my dreams intact, I believe that in some small corner of England there are still gardeners preparing their prize-winning chrysanthemums for the coming Fair.

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