Back in my college days, I helped fellow members of our student horticulture club raise field trip funds by making large corsages for Homecoming Day festivities (do boys still buy corsages for dates?). While I never want to make another ribbon again, I’ll never forget the fragrance of handling the overblown frilly cutflower chrysanthemums.
We grew the mums ourselves, of course, in a greenhouse from rooted cuttings tied to stakes and wires to keep stems straight. We had to constantly “disbud“ little side shoots to keep just one big flower per stem, and every afternoon, starting in late summer, we pulled a heavy shade cloth over the crowded benches to “fake” the plants into thinking it was getting dark earlier -- the necessary trigger to get them to bloom by game day.
Welcome to a Big Family
Cultivated in China as far back as the 15th century B.C., mums are now so revered in Japan that the country celebrates a National Chrysanthemum Day with huge displays of mums as cut flowers, topiaries, cascades and even tiny specimen in miniature landscape tableaux.
Not to be complicated by other members of the huge aster family including daisies, zinnias, dahlias, marigolds and sunflowers, or to even get into the debacle caused when some taxonomists temporarily renamed them Dendranthema, the chrysanthemums we simply call “garden mums“ are mostly hardy, easy-to-grow perennials that can grace nearly any style of landscape.
There are many different chrysanthemum species, including the medicinal feverfew (C. parthenium) with tiny, daisy-like flowers, Shasta daisy (C. maximum), and the favorite old “passalong” garden mum named Clara Curtis (C. zawadskii) shared between gracious gardeners as rooted cuttings or crown divisions.
Florist vs. Garden Mums
The types most commonly grown are usually lumped into two main groups: exhibition and garden. The former are usually grown with special care as annuals for cut flowers, or, as I saw at shows in Japan last fall, in many amazing plant forms, including sprays, standard (trees), hanging baskets, topiary, bonsai, cascades and even tiny flowering additions to miniature garden scenes. If you are in for a rewarding hobby with special challenges, you can get more information by going to the National Chrysanthemum Society website. The site includes an interactive map for finding nearby clubs with members eager to help get you started.
Though most chrysanthemums grow on fairly sturdy little plants ranging from a foot or so to over three feet (some floppier than others), keeping track of the thousands of hybrid forms is a daunting task, made somewhat easier by society officials who sort them by flower shape.
Flower sizes can be anywhere from the size of a nickel to upwards of a foot across. Every single one is a composite of both small, roundish “disk” florets and longer, thin, “ray” florets. And though the Latin name means “golden flower” modern colors range from yellow or white to pink, red, bronze, orange, purple and even green - and countless bi-colors.
Flowers bloom in various shapes, according to how the disk and ray florets are arranged. They can be wide-open and daisy-like or double, or tight pompoms and buttons. The ray florets can be spidery or long thin spoons, quills or tubes. Some are curved inwards, others look like relaxed mop heads.
Regardless of what type of flower you prefer, nearly care-free garden mums are hands-down the “three” in four-season gardens. If planted in a sunny area with very well drained soil, they can come back after even a hard winter to bloom for many years of brilliant autumn color.