Flower of the month
In autumn, it’s the bright-colored trees that get top billing. No surprise there; it’s virtually impossible to not keep looking up at one brilliant tree or vista after another. And when the sun hits at just the right angle . . . ah, well, then it looks like nature was the inspiration for stained-glass windows. This year, I’ve also found my attention caught closer to the ground, by the deep gem-colors of chrysanthemums. In the past, I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to mums other than to appreciate their cold- and frosthardiness. They were bright and cheery but they didn’t seem very remarkable to me.
Lately, though, it seems that there are more colors to choose from besides the standard yellow or white. Today’s chrysanthemums come in purple, deep rose, burgundy, saffron, and two-tone mums with deep-colored centers and a sunny fringe. The vibrant colors somehow hint at the warm comfort of a leather armchair or the richness of a glass of sherry on a frost-tinged day.
There’s something of staying power in mums, as well. When the leaves have all fallen from the trees, the mums will bear their blossoms a while longer, a cheery sight.
Chrysanthemum — the plant’s common name — is also its botanical name. Named by Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century father of modern plant taxonomy, the moniker of this Asiatic flower name is cobbled together from ancient Greek roots: “chrysos,” meaning “gold” and “anthemon,” meaning “flower.”
The FTD website (ftd.com) reminds us that November’s birthmonth flower is the chrysanthemum. It also fills in a little history. As far as is known, chrysanthemums are native to mainland Asia and northeastern Europe. In China, they were cultivated for centuries as an herbal remedy for ailments such as headaches, high blood-pressure and inflammation.
The chrysanthemum migrated to Japan, where it was cultivated by Buddhist monks and became the emblem for the emperor’s official seal. It finally reached Western Europe — and Linnaeus — around 1750.
In wild chrysanthemums, with their flat, daisy-like flowers, it’s easy to see why they’re included in Asteraceae, the aster family. There are now so many hybrids, this relation is easy to miss. Today’s hybrids sport at least six different types of flowers. “Single” blooms look the most like chrysanthemums’ aster relatives. But there are also “incurved” flowers, which look like globes, “reflexed,” which look more umbrella-shaped, “intermediate,” which look like loosely-petaled globes, and “spoon.” These last have “singular flowerheads with tubular florets that open at the tips in a spoon shape.” (Encyclopedia of Gardening, American Horticultural Society)
Cultivating chrysanthemums is not difficult. As with any garden
plant, proper siting is key. Mums need a place where they will get the five to six hours of direct sunlight a day that they need. The soil should drain well, and the plants also need good air circulation to prevent mildew; don’t set them too close to each other.
Beyond that, the key to dense, bushy plants and lots of blooms is pinching. Pinching should start when new growth is four to six inches. It’s simple — just remove the stem above the second set of leaves (counting up from the base). Continue to pinch back the stems through June. Apparently, some of the newer cultivars don’t need pinching; that’s something to check at the garden center.
If your mums are planted in the ground and you want them to overwinter, cover them with a heavy layer of mulch after the ground has frozen, to protect the roots.
Note: The annual Chrysanthemum Festival at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, is ongoing through Nov. 20. One of the central exhibits is a “thousand-bloom” mum that bears more than 1,500 “perfectly arranged yellow flowers on one plant.” It’s the largest one outside of Asia.
A selection of Chrysanthemums are shown.