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December 10, 2015

RAISING A COLLECTION OF EXTRAORDINARY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

A contemporary photograph of classic chrysanthemums by Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda, Chrysanthemums, 2011 c-print. First cultivated in China, cultivated forms date as far back as the 15th Century B.C. Today, they remain important in much of Asia and especially in Japan where their appreciation remains unmatched.


This was a very special year for me. As many of you know, this year I grew (and trained) a collection of exhibition and Asian chrysanthemums - a collection which, thanks to many who shared plant material with me including Smith College, and Brian from Kings Mums . I had an opportunity which I could not turn down for an editorial piece for a publication next year, but due to a shortage of plant material ( an indication of how rare these plants actually are) I had almost not been able to get any cuttings started. Thanks to these folks, in addition to Five Form Farm and Mark Hachadorian from The New York Botanical Garden who helped me make some further connections, I was able to complete what ended up being one of my most fascinating special-growing-projects. 

Be prepared, this is a long post, but I wanted to share with you not only my process and results, but some of my influence as well. It's my hope that all of this might inspire even a few of you to consider growing chrysanthemums  next year, thus rediscovering this interesting, beautiful and historical craft and flower which sadly, is close to becoming extinct from culture. Consider joining the American Chrysanthemum Society too, for on their site, you will find great cultural advice. Facebook will connect you with very good growers in the UK too, such as Ivor Mace. Few grow these exhibition chrysanthemums today, and as you will see, for a few practical reasons, but mostly because they require some work to grow well.



A late nineteenth century rare Victorian chromolithographic trade card for Van Houghton Cocoa. once the world's most prominent chocolate maker. These collector trade card featured anything from children to tourism, to even how to grow the 'new' and stylish chrysanthemums .

A Century and a half ago, these larger, looser and more formal chrysanthemums where treasured greenhouse and conservatory plants. Grown outdoors and later in the season, brought indoors where they would bloom under glass for autumnal and winter displays. Yes, the chrysanthemum was considered a Christmas-time flower, blooming from early November until nearly January when set on display indoors.

What helped the chrysanthemum achieve such popularity during the Victorian era is exactly what keeps these plant uncommon in our gardening world today - and those reasons are more practical than anything else. SImply said, time and money. These are not plants for those with a modern home or lifestyle, unless you have an unheated brightly lit room that could act as a conservatory (an unheated bedroom?) for these chrysanthemums are tall, need to be raised in pots, and will not bloom until late in the season.

So, given that few today have a cold greenhouse, let alone a conservatory, growing and even moreso, displaying these plants will be a bit of a challenge. A hundred and fifty years ago, the idea of owning a conservatory or greenhouse, was not uncommon, at least amongst those with the means. Estates often had greenhouses from raising display plants, and most every proper Victorian home came with a conservatory room attached. Like show dogs or race horses, exhibition and Japanese chrysanthemums need growers and a staff to train. Today their culture and thus, their survival is left to the wealthy, a few botanical gardens and the a handful of crazy, obsessed working folk like me who are willing to sacrifice vacations, retirement and a career over raising something which few people ever see anymore. Whatever. 

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The forms coming from Japan in the mid-1800's were exotic and thus, special to the Victorians as well as to the the few collectors today who raise these rare treasures. This anemone form in particular, still feels modern.


So where to start? Well, first of all, forget anything that you already think about chrysanthemums - like those hardy mums we all love to hate, found at every garden center in the fall. Any post about exhibition chrysanthemums can't help but begin with their culture in Asia. Particularly in China and Japan, where near obsession with this flower continues, as it has for centuries. Used in ceremony, art, to show off highly specialized cultural techniques, even in food and tea - there exists a narrative about the chrysanthemum which can fill many books. for now, a few Japanese woodblock prints to show you how some special varieties such as anemone form and quills still exist, which you'll see once you scroll down more and see a few of the varieties I was able to grow this past summer and fall.

The Japanese have this capacity to not only treasure beauty, but to also appreciate many of the nuances and oddities found in nature. This quill form chrysanthemum featured in an early  woodcut




Catalogs starting featuring the now popular chrysanthemum by 1890 in the US. These taller forms which required staking and disbudding were far more popular than dwarf forms or those with smaller flowers.

After arriving in the West by the mid 1700's (rather late considering their culture in China), the chrysanthemum quickly became popular the UK, France and then in the US by 1800. a few growers still remain in business, in particular, Woolmens, which was founded in 1881. Sources like this offer a special and rare experience to the few of us who find ourselves attracted to raising these flowers from the past. But you certainly can grow these mums yourself,


Lithographs from the mid 1800's featured many formal types of chrysanthemums, which to me, seem to be getting some attention today once again by a new gardening generation, if only they could find them to grow.

Anyone seeking to imagine what the chrysanthemum brought to culture in the mid 1800's should read this account of an exhibition in the greenhouses of the once-famous grower Mssrs Salter & Son, Versailles Nursery, Hammersmith, London. A grower who brought so  many of the 'new' Japanese varieties to both the French and later, to England. The writings here capture the experience of what a greenhouse display in mid November in the 1850's featuring chrysanthemums from Japan as well as their own introductions, was like. It's sad that most of these truly old varieties are lost.

It's these accounts - of Nineteenth Century greenhouses with collections of vintage chrysanthemums, or Victorian conservatories set with staged, trained chrysanthemums illuminated by gas lamps which inspire me to bother - I mean, I can't explain exactly why I like chrysanthemums except that whenever I discover something which few people grow, I can't help myself. Raising chrysanthemums is like stepping into the past. A living antiquity, which few can experience anymore. How special is that?


Gustave Caillebotte  'Chrysanthemums in the Garden at Petit-Gennevilliers' 1893,
oil on Canvas. 
Met museum.com


Some very popular mid-nineteenth century artists such as Claude Monet and Gustave Caillebotte were lifelong gardeners, and their interest in floral still life paintings reached a peak later in their lives. Money started his four chrysanthemum paintings around the same time that he painted many of his waterlily paintings. 


Claude Monet 'A bed of Chrysanthemums' 1897,
Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.
One of 3 chrysanthemum paintings which he [ainted in his garden at Giverney,
 it's not exactly what we all imagine when we think of Monet, is it?






Early lithographic prints and rotogravure, and hand-colored daguerreotypes captured more of these most desirable plants around 1910. Even in these images, one an see hints of rust and insect damage on the foliage, but few care when the blossoms are this special as in this early spider form.



In my collection, I am starting to see some of the magic these early varieties present. 'Lake Landers' is a favorite of mine. What appears to be a perfect  tight  pink snowball of a mum. All mums are  groups and organized by the American Chrysanthemum Society  into classes, based on their form. This one is my favorite - Class 3 'Regular Incurve'.

Over the past year, I've been fortunate to connect with this bit of an underground chrysanthemum culture, which includes a couple of well-known (in the chrysanthemum world, anyway) exhibitors in the UK. Everyone has been so helpful in aiding me with a special project which I thankfully have completed (but which I cannot share with you until next October), but this camaraderie does illuminate how passionate some of us have become about these relics from the past which really are on the cusp of being lost forever.

In 1910, many Chrysanthemums were featured on postcards and on inexpensive prints.

Why lost forever? I have to be careful here to not even fool myself, for although I find growing these plants rewarding, I know far too well that while the chrysanthemum may easy to grow ( by basic standards, Chrysanthemums are quite easy culturally...), but if one wants to grow these fancier mums to perfection? That's an entirely different story. They will require weekly tending, even some daily pinching, disbudding or fertilizing. I can think of no other plant which responds so well to being fussed over than the chrysanthemum. If you do plan to grow these flowers anywhere close to what they look like below, plan on at least a few hours a week dedicated to care and training. More about that in another post, or a downloadable pdf, but I will close this simply by saying that mums demand more care than sweet peas, Tieing and staking every week, a heavy feeding schedule, and plan on using some sort of insecticide and fungicide. It just comes with the territory. 

If you choose to grow these fancier types au-natural? Expect small flowers, which will undoubtedly still be pretty, but nothing close to the large, perfect flowers seen in the remaining pictures.




I guess the question here then, are they worth growing anymore?

I think that they are, but be prepared for the work ( which I must admit, I sort-of like). Give me something to fuss over, and I am a happy plantsman. Easy, carefree plants are fine, but boring.


Brush forms like this Japanese cross are choice and rarely seen today. These don't make good garden plants, not good cut flowers - more of a novelty, but undeniably special.


Before undertaking a chrysanthemum program next spring, here are a few things to note.
Timing is essential. Pinch too late (after mid July) and you risk having smaller flowers and later blooms. Most varieties are late anyway, so although they grow well, and prefer being outdoors all summer, they won't bloom until near or after frost. This important unless you live in USDA zones 8 or higher. Let's say, in North Carolina or south of that. Since they are late blooming plants, they will need to have some protection late in the season.

'Aoi' is a lovely pale pink brush form.

Here is a brief outline of my schedule, highly simplified, but it should give you an idea of what to expect.




HERE'S HOW I GREW MY CHRYSANTHEMUMS


I start by choosing which varieties I want to grow each winter, when the catalog from Kings Mums arrives in January


Chrysanthemum cuttings rooted and potted  up in the June greenhouse.

(March -May) Cuttings ordered from Kings Mums

(May-June)  Rooted cuttings set out in pots or in the garden

(June) Pinch to cause branching

(July) Second pinch, if necessary

(August) Stake and remove suckers, and side shoots

(September) Stake and disbud, remove sideshoots

(October) Disbud, and remove sideshoots - Dig plants and bring in greenhouse or under protection - first flowers

(November) Stage displays.

(December) - Cut back plants and store stools where it is cold and bright- greenhouse or cold frame

(January - May) - Strike cuttings for the next season

'Lake Landers' has a tight form, and takes nearly a month and a half to open underclass. But the plant was grown outdoors in a container for the entire summer.
Once fully opened, 'Lake Landers' is so beautiful. You're never going to find this at any florist.

With some careful adjusting of the florets, the blossom could be made to appear even more perfect as illustrated here in the turn-of-the-century Molineux book on Chrysanthemums.

In 1890, advertisements like this appeared in many gardening books. I love the 'Unsolicited Opinion of the author". Who wouldn't want "Capital, sturdy, healthy-looking chaps? At least when it comes to chrysanthemums.


'Primrose Tennis' forms an almost perfect sphere.

This spoon fantasy type is spectacular. Everyone who visited  my greenhouse wanted this one. The plant is over 6 feet tall.


These are tall too, almost taller than me, but trained to only 3 stems per plant.




Here is a view of the front of the greenhouse. Notice that each pot has a single plant in it, and a bamboo cane, which is necessary. 

This is how they were grown in the 1800's. First, outdoors, and then brought indoors just before they bloomed.

I grew mine in 10 pots, set on raised beds in the garden. By late July, they will be about 3 feet tall.

Once moved in, just before frost here in New England, they quickly bloom, with flowers lasting until early December.


A very nice quill form just opening in late October.



Another quill with a green center., This flower is larger than a dinner plate!

The colors are oddly compatable.

Some varieties were trained to single stems, and disbudded to produce one, single, large flower.



Some are trained in this way, but much taller.



Ombre effect as a blossom ages. Still, lovely.



Who doesn't love a tall, wide spider form? These were so tall that I would have to stand on a ladder if I wanted to get a photo from above.

Cascades like this anemone form, can also be exceedingly fragrant.


Always fun to see a plant look exactly like the photo in the catalog.


'Heather James'. A huuuge flower, and almost the color of  Donald Trump's hair.













11 comments :

  1. You are an extraordinary plantsman! Fascinating, informative article.

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  2. Great post, fascinating history too!

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  3. Thanks for this in-depth post. I love a huge learning curve and was quite pleased overall, with results this year. Now lets talk carnations ...

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  4. What I find equally fascinating is the kind of garden books that were published a hundred years ago. All that info and illustrations about how to do things. Not only are the flowers diappearing but these older books are hard to find as well.

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  5. Kudos for all the work you did to produce these gorgeous flowers! I've never loved modern chrysanthemums, but these are beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Amazing....just amazing!

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  7. During the summer I worked at Longwood Gardens much of my time was spent training and caring for the chrysanthemums for their annual fall mum display. So much so, in fact, that I requested to extend my internship into the fall so that I could be around to see the fruits of my labors! The final display was definitely worth it. Thanks for the post- it brought back a lot of those memories. And hopefully someday I'll be able to grow some of my own.

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  8. Thanks, you are forever reminding me of my floral past. My family grew cut mums and drove them into the City from Staten Island. We purchased our cuttings from Yoder. When the farm was sold I kept some books, one has similar line drawings as your dwarf mum. Garden and Greenhouse Chrysanthemums Alex Laurie and D.C. Kiplinger. Guess what I will be reading tonight.

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  9. hi matt....was waiting for this post for a long time..you did a great work...absolutely fantastic..interesting history too.

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  10. Great to see such enthusiasm about growing mums. Wonderful article. Thank you.

    Just a note to correct your mention of the national society - it's the National Chrysanthemum Society. Actually, we have one here in the US and there's another in the UK with the same name.

    We here in the Long Island Chrysanthemum Society have our show at Hicks Nursery in Westbury in October. We order our cuttings from www.kingsmums.com and also from www.capobiancocreations.com

    Our next meeting is at 1:00 on June 5th at the Clark Garden in Albertson, NY (Long Island). Our expert growers will be explaining how to grow these spectacular blooms. We hope to have some potted cuttings to share. Admission is free and all are welcome.

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  11. Awesome information! I finally found a source here in British Columbia and bought 6 plants. I love them but its so hard to find growing information about them. My plants are already producing beautiful blooms in mid-November and new growth is appearing at the base of the plants so they must be happy. I planted in raised beds near the greenhouse but may bring them in like you do. It doesn't freeze hard here but then watch mother nature pull a good one this year. So far I have Shirley Victoria, Rayonnante Pink, Fairweather and Connie Mayhew.

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