Chrysanthemums Signal Autumn and the Coming of Winter
Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes
To many, chrysanthemums signal the slowing down and ending of the growing season. Fall would not be fall without the colorful blooms of what many gardeners in the Pacific Northwest know as garden mums. Many consider the plants cliché and at the present time, they are out of favor. Although they are grown extensively in pots and for cut flowers, few gardeners grow them in the garden. Why is this so? Are chrysanthemums too difficult to grow? Not hardy? Are they too much maintenance?
Surprisingly, there is more to these plants than the typical cushion mums one sees at the grocery store. In fact, there are many different types of blooms, described as anemone, quills, spoons, spiders and much more. There are also many different colors, ranging from bright yellow, red, and pink to purple. The photograph to the right display a selection of different varieties including red and yellow singles, a stunning orange-red irregular incurve variety and an orange quill variety.
Chrysanthemums have actually been in cultivation a long time. Chrysanthemum x morifolium is a complex hybrid resulting from the interbreeding of several species. According to Peter Vader in the The Garden Plants of China, chrysanthemum breeding culture has been described in Chinese literature since the 7th century.
Originally, only yellow flowers were known, but by the 8th century, white and purple flowers were mentioned in poems. There were 20 known cultivars in the late 10th century, but by the 19th century, there were over 2000 cultivars. Besides the extensive cultivation for flowers, chrysanthemums were used to make wine, using the foliage and stems, combined with rice and then fermented. The wine was ready to drink the following autumn. The Chinese believed that longevity and immortality were associated with drinking chrysanthemum wine on the 9th day of the 9th month. Today, many varieties of teas can be made from the flowers.
The big question for many Pacific Northwest gardeners: Can we grow these fancy chrysanthemums in the ground? Local Oregon City growers, King’s Mums, recommends 6 hours of sun. Chrysanthemums grow in almost any soil type; however, adding materials such as manure, compost, and leaf mold is very beneficial. Chrysanthemums can be left in the ground if they are mulched with straw, manure, leaves or other materials. It is best to leave the old stems until you see signs of new growth. These flowers are best planted in the spring, although smaller types can be planted as late as July. For shorter plants and better foliage at bloom time, King’s recommends cutting back plants when they are 10 inches tall by July 1st to 4-6 inches. Also, to promote branching and flowers, remove or pinch the growing tip portion of the stems, after growth has resumed.
Chrysanthemums are an obsession for some gardeners. The Chinese have a long history of training them into cascades and animal shapes. Many gardeners like to exhibit these showy flowers. To get to exhibition size, all lateral branches must be removed, leaving only one stem. The bottom photograph displays a variety of exhibition chrysanthemums provided by the Portland Chrysanthemum Society for the chrysanthemum show at Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon.
All of this disbudding and pinching may be too much for most gardeners, possibly giving chrysanthemums a bad reputation for being “fussy” or too much maintenance. However, it sure is hard to resist their lovely blooms!
Photographed at the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon.