The gem of fall

Chrysanthemums are a garden classic and colorful showcase

Ebi Kondo
Posted 10/1/18

The chrysanthemum is one of the most popular fall flowering ornamental plants and is known for its many varieties of color, shapes, sizes and growth habit. Under the crisp fall weather, the big and …

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The gem of fall

Chrysanthemums are a garden classic and colorful showcase

Posted

The chrysanthemum is one of the most popular fall flowering ornamental plants and is known for its many varieties of color, shapes, sizes and growth habit.

Under the crisp fall weather, the big and bold blossoms are held high on the strong stem and brighten the fall garden with golden yellow, orange, crimson, rose, pink and white. The flower was described as a “quick puff of colored smoke” in John Steinbeck’s beautiful and sentimental short story, “The Chrysanthemums.”

This fall garden king was introduced to western countries from China in the 17th century. In 1753, Karl Linnaeus named this daisy-like yellow flower chrysanthemum, derived from ancient Greek — chrysos (gold) and anthemon (flower) as “golden flower.” This introduction created excitement among the European horticultural industries and spread quickly.

In 1843, the first chrysanthemum show was held in Norwich, England. More varieties of decorative chrysanthemums were imported from Japan in the mid-19th century by well-known British plant hunter Robert Fortune.

The chrysanthemum was first cultivated in China as early as the Han era, 206 B.C.- A.D. 220, as a flowering herb believed to give people longevity. The aromatic chrysanthemum tea is still a familiar tea in China, brewed in a teapot with dried chrysanthemum flowers and boiling water.

Around the 8th century when chrysanthemums were brought from China to Japan, they created a sensation among Japanese elites of the imperial court with its beauty.

Following the Chinese custom, Japanese nobles celebrated their Chrysanthemum Festival on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month to promote longevity and prosperity. People enjoyed viewing the beautiful treasured flowers while drinking sake with floating chrysanthemum petals and “evening dew,” which collected from the chrysanthemum flowers the night before. Eventually, Emperor Gotoba settled on the choice of the chrysanthemum flower as an imperial seal.

With the passage of time, when chrysanthemums were discovered in the deserted gardens of the aristocrats, they were re-planted and spread to the public.

The chrysanthemum can be easily propagated from cuttings rather than from seed. The process involves cutting a few inches of the growing tip, sticking it into well-drained propagation soil, and keeping it moist until roots are established. The chrysanthemums can also be divided very easily in the spring. Pinching the plants in early July will encourage them to branch out rather than getting leggy and too tall, and to put more energy into flower production.

Chrysanthemums are a short-day plant, meaning they are stimulated into making flowers bloom when daytime becomes shorter. In the modern era, the commercial greenhouse growers control lighting, using artificial light, to simulate the appropriate conditions, which enable chrysanthemums to bloom year-round.

The flower of chrysanthemum always reminds me of the classic Japanese gothic anthology, “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” by Ueda Akinari published in 1776. One of the episodes, “The Chrysanthemum Pledge,” is about a strong friendship between two young men who are forced to part by unreasonable fate. In the end, they find their way to reunite in some mysterious way.

Why not enjoy these chrysanthemum-inspired stories with a cup of chrysanthemum tea on a rainy fall night?

Ebi Kondo is the curator of the Japanese Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. He can be reached at horticulture@denverbotanicgardens.org.

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