November 30, 2016

Winter Conservatory Chrysanthemums

Vintage Japanese lanterns illuminate the greenhouse last Friday night as we celebrated the peak bloom of my exhibition and Japanese Chrysanthemum collection. There were only four of us for cocktails, but I felt that I had to do something to celebrate these amazing, vintage and nearly forgotten late autumn and early winter flowers so rarely seen anymore.

Time for this years' chrysanthemum photos, as clearly, I have not had the time to write a proper post given an unusually busy fall for me. If you missed my Martha Stewart Living magazine feature this November, I have provided a link here to the on-line version. I felt that I should at least share some of this years mums, since I did spend so much time training them throughout the summer, and because no one gets to see them if they just stay in my greenhouse all fall and winter! (me, included - since I am a bit overwhelmed with a kitchen remodel and other responsibilities for a bit.).

I obviously have not been posting as frequently lately, and I apologize to you if you have been sitting patiently by your computer waiting for a post (right!). Mostly, I have been consumed with a remodeling project at home - one which began as a kitchen tweak, but has grown into basically a 'half-of-a-house' remodel. I need to accept that it won't be complete by Christmas and just move forward, but for now, I am surrounded by plaster dust, 100 year old horsehair plaster dust, and brand new plaster dust.

Not to mention wires and lath hanging from he ceiling, holes in the floor and everything that comes with a remodel. If you've ever survived one in an old house, you know what I am dealing with. I could reeeeally use some decompression time in the greenhouse right now as well, but my day job as an elf for Santa also gets a little hectic this time of year, not to mention other governance dates with a couple of board positions, committees, plant society positions and everything that comes with end-of-year campaigns. I think I really need to take some time for myself this Holiday season, but until then, I do owe you all a post, even if it is brief.

On sunny days, the greenhouse still can get pretty warm, but the short day length stimulates these chrysanthemums to bloom. Their long bloom period can last nearly 2 months under glass, one can see why greenhouse and exhibition mums were once so popular and essential in Victorian and earlier glass houses and conservatory displays.

The chrysanthemums this season in the greenhouse at home are spectacular. They are so fragrant too, which surprised me, as I am trying a few new varieties, as well as many old ones. Again, these are not common garden mums, but rather, conservatory chrysanthemums - we really don't know what to call them, as they are a somewhat endangered type of non-commercial, non-hardy chrysanthemum which a hundred years ago or so, was so popular as a fall and winter flower, but today, have evolved into what most of us know as 'pot-mums' or 'hardy cushion mums'. They are neither, but rather chrysanthemums which are either trained to single stems to increase their bloom size or grown and disbanded to perfection.

Immensely popular and culturally significant in Asia, as well as in Mexico where they still play an important part in Day of the Dead celebrations, in the rest of the world, these conservatory plants of the late short-day seasons, have virtually been forgotten. And it's no wonder, since home greenhouses are not common by any means, and estates with conservatories where displays could be raised and set up, are just about exitinct as well.  So exhibition chrysanthemums or Japanese chrysanthemums will probably always remain a novelty - something to be viewed on rare occasions at the few botanical gardens who may bother to raise them, or in Asia (China, Korea and Japan) where they have more importance.

The chrysanthemums in this print by Charles Courtney Curran shows how important chrysanthemums once were in turn of the century conservatory displays. I like how he captured the correct light and colors as are in my greenhouse in late November.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries however, and a bit into the early 20th century, the tall, trained greenhouse or exhibition chrysanthemum was the choicest fall blooming plant. Local flower farmers and florists raised them, since air travel limited choices, and the fact that they only form buds and bloom in the autumn and short days of early winter meant that they were naturally designed for that season. Today, one can find vintage Holiday cards with mums on them, and images of impressive displays at museums, public gardens and private estates where the chrysanthemum reigned until late December.

Now, only a handful of us bother to raise them. Maybe it's just out of nostalgia, or perhaps because of their rarity, or their history - which dates back hundreds of years to the 14 century (as the chrysanthemum was the first plant to be raised as a potted plant by the Chinese) - there is just something captivating about a plant which has fascinated mankind for so long, and it seems tragic that so few today understand or appreciate their cultural DNA.

Over commercialized and hybridized into dwarft, meaningless potted plants at hospital gift shops, or a cheap, sterile cut flowers at the supermarket, - even as carefully timed and growth retarded mounds of mums as standard fall decor at farm stands, the Chrysanthemum seems to have lost its connection with its audience, which is a shame, yet perhaps just a reality of modern life (no home greenhouses and conservatories, little interest or knowledge on how to raise them, and yes - only one source on where to find them commercially in the US - Kings Mums.

This year I trained some different styles of chysanthemums in traditional methods using bamboo and wire. A long process, the cascades often required the most training. These brush-style forms,a  variety called Saga Nishiki is a favorite in Japan and with collectors but is rarely trained into a cascade (I accidentally did it! But they look OK as this is a difficult form to train and display.
If you wish to raise these as garden plants, only a very few will bloom in time before frost, as they would require shading each evening in August to promote early bud formation, or a carefully selected early blooming variety. These are not exactly the same type of mum as standard hardy garden mums, not the same as truly hardy perennial types - all have their merits, but they are indeed different selections.

This anemone form is variety called 'Daybreak'.

Perhaps the most impressive are the varieties from Great Britain, those bred by a well know chrysanthemum enthusiast - Ivor Mace. This one is one from his collection - 'Salmon Harry Gee', a variety rarely seen in North America.

I will say that you could try raising these plants, but be forewarned that to achieve results like this, you should make the effort to at least disband, pinch and train a bit based on whatever of the 13 classes or different type of mum you buy, to at least, try to get a result that meets why one selected the variety in the first place.

One could raise, let's say an 'formal incurve' or a spider mum from a cutting purchased at Kings and set out into the garden or in a large container in late May, and train the plant minimally (pinching every few weeks, and keeping the plant well staked and fertilized), and then dig it up just before frost and bring it onto an unheated porch or deck with protection, and have amazing flowers by Halloween - that is possible, and something I would encourage many of you to try.

Step-by-step directions are something I should probably prepare for this, right?

'Gillette'' is a large, white mums - this one has a little decay on it - too damp in my greenhouse and I didn't keep the vents open this autumn.

Cascade style chrysanthemums have weaker stems, which can be strategically trained through careful pinching techniques to a shape not unlike a waterfall.  This variety, 'Bronze Fleece' is a particularly nice one for cascades, and it is fragrant too!

'George Couchman' trained into a pyramid form, once very popular in Victorian conservatory displays. These are the blooms that one would associate with the Holiday season at one time.

Training chrysanthemums into bonsai is also popular with enthusiasts in Japan. This was my first attempt at training a grove, using the variety 'Kotoi No Kaori'. Not perfect, but not bad I think as a first attempt.

Last year I started collecting vintage early and mid 20th century paper Japanese paper lanterns (mostly American-style ones, which are kind-of funny with 1950's graphics). I illuminated some near evening, to see what they would look like imagining what a greenhouse in 1900 might have looked like.

En masse in the greenhouse, these mums look the best. Somehow, all of the odd colors work which may seem impossible when one looks at a catalog where pink, magenta, yellow, gold and brown are all shown side-by-side, but experiencing a display in a greenhouse with the low angle of autumn sunlight, somehow it all seems 'right'. Even to a color geek like me.

The effect as the sun began to set was insanely beautiful, and I felt bad that no one could enjoy it except us.

I added some vintage Japanese lanterns to the greenhouse this year (not real Japanese cultural ones, but rather mid-century interpretations of Japanese-style generic Asian paper lanterns - the sort exported to the West for party decorations in the 50's, and probably for Chinese restaurants - crazy Americans! They are still pretty, in a naive way, but they remind me that I really do need to get some authentic Japanese lanterns into a collection (they are just too expensive for me right now!). So I will settle on kitsch as long as it is vintage.

The cascade mums had tons of blooms. I am always impressed at how the colors blend well together - pink, gold, brown and yellow never looked so in-season.
As nightfall comes, the lanterns are fitted with candles which will illuminate the greenhouse and transform it into a very special experience. Sadly, only I saw it this evening, and of course, Doodles who joined me, as she hunted for mice.

Spoon-shaped mums are beautiful. I trained this variety 'Maryl' into multiple sprays.
I did add a few Ikea lanterns as well, which were solar powered. Nothing like a little high-tech to break the mood, but they were on sale and fit the budget.

Speaking of budgets - here are a few embarrassing pics of the kitchen remodel. Maybe I should do a post on this? Before and after? How we did the entire project for less than 10k?

Now, as for the house remodel. Here is what I am dealing with. It's a low-budget kitchen remodel which involved breaking down a wall between the old dining room and an already pretty large kitchen which my parents had remodeled in the 1940's. Yes, it required removal of one of my dad's murals but I saved the family members who are in it.
About that mural - my father was a WPA muralist in the 1930's through the 1950's (that's him in the green coat behind the clock, along with my mother, my sister and my two brothers. I wasn't born for another ten years (oops!), so I am not in the mural. We lost about 8 feet of the mural, but opening up the two rooms to create a massive space is so nice. 

The frame for a new book case for cook books - I can't wait to get rid of the blue tile from the 1950's!

Now the kitchen space will be nearly 60 feet long, enough for two farm tables maybe. Right now, if feels that it will never be done however.  I've been so depressed because I cannot cook (since October!), and I am sick and tired of the project.  The handprinted cabinets by my dad are being preserved and shared with other  family members.

Happy December!


  1. I am so jealous of your green house and chrysanthemum collection! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Gordon> But please don't be that jealous - heating it is crazy!

  2. Thank you for letting US see all this, even if it was in photos -- all the gorgeous mums, so beautifully grown. I can see your dream for the kitchen/dining space now, too -- take heart, it WILL be finished, and so worth the wait.

    1. Thanks River View - fingers crossed!!!

  3. Anonymous9:33 PM

    dear matt
    thank you for this post.
    the fate--gasp!-- of the handpainted décorations was actually my first reaction to your mention of the kitchen renovation.
    previously you have sighed out loud and asked rhetorically why do i "do this stuff" (such as the chrysanthemum project).
    you set a high bar for certain kinds of meticulous activity, including gardening, which inspires the rest of us to try a little harder in the areas of our own interest.
    what you do is a focused way of being challenged, of having an interest and following through by producing it. (not just passively taking in an idea and then wistfully letting it go again, the way many of us do.)
    as long as you post this blog, or other projects to come, and promote plant societies, it isn't wasted effort.
    people generally seem to experience personal creative death these days and are out of the habit of producing anything, it seems. they expect to be able to buy everything pre-made by someone else (like their gardener); have it made FOR them, but not BY them (and christmas, coming right up, is the epitome).
    the chrysanthemums are splendid. thank you for letting us see them.
    all best,
    ~ 02568

    1. Oh 02568 - you know me so well. You have no idea how much I needed to read this today.. Kitchen doesn't look like it will even be halfway complete by Christmas now - just problems with whose doing it (health issues) and that holds us up, but health comes first. Maybe we'll target Easter now! Thanks so so much for the words of encouragement. Truly is helpful that someone is out there who understands. Cheers!!! Matt

  4. omg. just a quick one - those chrysanthemums - those lanterns - the sargent-like photos! bravo! you have my condolences on the kitchen project - but oh the result and the memories thank god recede quickly. i hope that will be the case for you. anyway, gorgeous gorgeous hope you'll have happier memories soon. and i second "anonymous"/

    1. OMG - Sargent, right? I knew it looked a little Lily, Lily Rose-ish! As ever, Mile Paradis! Means much coming from you! Cheers!

  5. This wonderful post reminds me that, just a few years out of high school, one of the first plants I bought for the porch of an apartment in West Hollywood was a chrysanthemum beautifully grown on standard, so I definitely get the appeal. I think the little bonsai came out beautifully. I hope you provide an update on the kitchen. That can't be easy, to both honor your family's unique artistic history and update the kitchen in a way that allows you to entertain and cook as you desire. And thanks for the link to Kings!

    1. Hey, thanks so much Denise. SO just curious - were you ever able to recreate that standard mum? I imagine that you would have had to take cuttings and start over again, probably easier to just buy a new one I suppose! I often dream of just having a porch on an apartment - talk about focus!

  6. Hi Matt,
    Because I moved and started a new Iris business I hadn't had the time to keep up with your blog-my loss, I am so happy to have the time to read it again. You have inspired me to get my 30' by 36' unheated greenhouse properly set up. So a little designing on benches, heat mats installed, lights up, cuttings taken and it's feeling workable.
    Your exhibition chrysanthemums couldn't be more beautiful-and those lanterns! I have been having a great time reading your camellia and dahlia posts. The information you provide is invaluable.
    Can hardly wait to see the results of your kitchen remodel!

    1. Hi Kat, Good for you for getting back into what you love. Im convinced that sometimes we just need to step back a bit before going back into what we love. Everything just feels fresh again after a break. Thanks so much for you kind words of support!


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