October 19, 2008

KIKU - The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum at the New York Botanical Gardens

Chrysanthemums, trained to Ogiku style or  'single-stem' forms, are a traditional method of training certain chrysanthemums which require careful pinching, and disbudding throughout the growing season. This is exactly how they are displayed in Japanese exhibitions, in precise rows set under protective roofs.

This glorious autumn weekend we had the luxury of attending the opening of Kiku -The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum held at the New York Botanical Gardens' Enid A Haupt Conservatory. As a solid Japanophile myself, having a local exhibition of such a collection is a rare and unique treat, since this is the second year that the NYBG has offered this exhibition. Most impressive is that this exhibit is the result of five years of a cultural exchange between the Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, where for the past 100 years gardeners have perfected the art of growing and displaying exquisite chrysanthemums for the Emperor's garden. Under the training of Kiku master Yasuhira Iwashita, is is noted in the catalog of this years' exhibit that last year was the first time that the techniques and styles developed and displayed at the Shinjuku Gyoen were presented outside of Japan. This show runs from October 18 until November 16, 2008 at the New York Botanical Garden.

Exhibitions of this quality and authenticity are rare outside of Japan. If you are in the New York or ti-state area,  try not to miss this show -  a show which takes an enormous amount of time and talent over a 18 month period.

There are some very traditional patterns and forms which each takes years of apprenticeship to be able to achieve good results. The New York Botanical Garden display demonstrates most every method of training (perhaps without the human-doll forms), which makes this show very tradional from a Japanese perspective. It seems no detail has been overlooked.

There was a time when chrysanthemum displays were more common in North American, which reached an apex of popularity around 1900, but given that displays were often limited to the wealthy, those with private estates and teams of gardeners or to horticultural societies (often those, which financial support from said supporters who saw value in supporting such displays) today, outside of Asia, chrysanthemum displays are virtually non-existent (except perhaps those which feature crotons, plastic orange pumpkins and hay bales from Home Depot.

A formal conservatory chrysanthemum display itself may be a relic of the Victorian era, a traditional Kiku display featuring only the most traditional of Japanese forms, is something rarely seen anywhere at all outside of Japan. Thanks to the New York Botanical Gardens and it's dedication to horticultural talent and art, we al have been gifted this very generous treat - a portal to the Edo period, right here in the Bronx.

There are four Imperial styles of Kiku which are being displayed at the Enid Haupt Conservatory.  These include the Ozukuri ("thousand bloom") amazing domes and ovals of giant, incurves and recurve (or what we might call 'football mums' trained to a frame and all grown from a single cutting - a study in geometry which has to be seen, to be appreciated, or shall I say,"to be believed'; the ogiku ("single stem"), kengai ("cascade'), and new this year, shino-tsukuri ("driving rain"). These plants are all housed and displayed in decorative Japanese garden pavilions known as uwaya. These intricate structures protect and frame the beauty of the kiku displays: they are constructed from bamboo and cedar and then edged with ceremonial drapery.

Shin-tsukuri ("driving rain") style Chrysanthemums

Contemporary Japanese art from traditional materials adds to this years display. A magnificent outdoor installation of a  massive bamboo sculpture by artist Tetsunori Kawana, a master teacher of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana,the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging. Kawana is known worldwide for his innovative installations using freshly split bamboo.

The New York Botanical Gardens displays are attractive and immersive from every angle. I love the lanterns, music and the bonsai which all added to the effect.

The amazing ozukuri style of training Chrysanthemums - perhaps the most difficult, this "thousand bloom" form takes 11 months of training from cutting, to this,. Yes...this is all from a single plant, and if you kneel down, you can see the single 1/4 inch thick stem of the entire plant!

Cascade -trained chrysanthemums were most compelling and seemed like something that I could try at home. Finding books on the subject, however, has been difficult. But you know me! I will continue trying to find them before I give up!

The cascade style might be more popular to some people in the States, if you visit a fine botanic garden, but this form is still rather unusual, the plants are trained like waterfalls. This cascade style was the first fancy exhibition style that I tryed. Yes, you can try growing these amazing Japanese forms at home ( by ordering cuttings from Kings Mums for delivery in June).

If I cannot find a book to show me how to train these mums, these images on the didactic panels at the Kiku display, are quite helpful.


  1. WOW - I love the Japanese. They seem to turn life into an artform. Those chrysanthemums are completely amazing.

    1. Anonymous7:22 PM

      You bet they do! Saw these in Japan a few weeks ago!

  2. Simply stunning, I've never seen anything quite like it before. Thanks for bringing us the slightly unusual in the gardening world...

  3. Matt, I am glad that you got to NYBG to see the Kiku. I wast there last year and it was amazing. I now have 20 or so crysanthemum cultivars many good for cascade, and bonsai.... Just a note we have a very nice linearlobum Jap. maple called Red Pygmy among others in stock at the nursery. Take Care, Glen

  4. Nichola2:09 AM

    I would love to grow the Kiku but I can't find anywhere that sells seeds nor plants unless you are a business. Very frustrating since I always wanted to give them a try. If there is any way to get them here in Australia let me know please.

  5. I am a garden designer and grower of 35 years. Twenty years ago there was a source for Chinese and Japanese chrysanthemums. I grew a cold greenhouse full from bottle brush types to ones that opened full and double and then trailed down like dragon slobber. They grew up the full height of the 12 ft green house and down and up again and bloomed fall to January. Of course, I did not know what I was doing. How can I get some of these gorgeous forms again for my Japanese friends?


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