History of the Chrysanthemum

“If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow Chrysanthemums.” (a Chinese philosopher)

The chrysanthemum was first cultivated in China as a flowering herb and is described in writings as early as the 15th Century B.C. In fact, their pottery depicted the chrysanthemum much as we know it today. As an herb, it was believed to have the power of life. Legend has it that the boiled roots were used as a headache remedy; young sprouts and petals were eaten in salads; and leaves were brewed for a festive drink. The ancient Chinese name for chrysanthemum is “Chu.” The Chinese city of Chu-Hsien (which means Chrysanthemum City) was so named to honor the flower.

Around the 8th century A.D., the chrysanthemum appeared in Japan. So taken were the Japanese with this flower that they adopted a single flowered chrysanthemum as the crest and official seal of the Emperor. The chrysanthemum in the crest is a 16-floret variety called “Ichimonjiginu.” Family seals for prominent Japanese families also contain some type of chrysanthemum called a Kikumon – “Kiku” means chrysanthemum and “Mon” means crest. In Japan, the Imperial Order of the Chrysanthemum is the highest Order of Chivalry. Japan also has a National Chrysanthemum Day, which is called the Festival of Happiness.

The chrysanthemum was first introduced into the Western world during the 17th Century. In
1753 Karl Linnaeus, reknowned Swedish botanist, combined the Greek words chrysos, meaning gold with anthemon, meaning flower. Linnaeus was the founder of that branch of taxonomy dealing with plants and including the science of classification and identification. Experts say this is probably an accurate description of the ancient species, as it also points out the mum’s need for sunlight. The earliest illustrations of mums show them as small, yellow daisy-like flowers.

Ancient growers would not recognize modern mums. Although some mums still resemble daisies, others are more showy. Regardless of the flower type, they all belong to the Compositae, or daisy, family. In more recent times, growers within several countries began to propagate chrysanthemums. Hybridizers in England, France, Japan, and the United States have developed a wide range of floral colors, shapes, and sizes. Today, its colors include various shades of pink, purple, red, yellow, bronze or orange, and white. Some cultivars (varieties) have different colors between the disc and ray florets and some have ray florets that are bi-colored on the face and reverse sides.

Petals on chrysanthemums are actually florets (a small flower, usually part of a dense cluster, especially, one of the disk or ray flowers of a composite plant such as a daisy) since both sexual parts (male/female) exist in each one. The chrysanthemum flower has two types of florets - ray florets that would be called petals on a daisy, and disc florets that are the center florets in a daisy type of bloom. Only the disc florets can reproduce. All classes of chrysanthemums have both types of florets, but in many of the classes, the disc florets are not apparent. In those plants, the plant breeder uses a pair of scissors to uncover the disc florets for pollination and the development of new cultivars.

Since the chrysanthemum was first introduced into the United States during colonial times, its popularity has grown such that mums now reign as undisputed “Queen of the Fall Flowers.” For many of us, our introduction to the chrysanthemum was a corsage for the girlfriends and mothers at Homecoming football games. Mums remain the most widely grown pot plant in the country and are one of the longest lasting of all cut flowers. This latter attribute, along with their artistic allure, make mums highly favored by floral arrangers. In the United States, the chrysanthemum is the largest commercially produced flower due to its ease of cultivation, capability to bloom on schedule, diversity of bloom forms and colors, and holding quality of the blooms.

An interesting contrast to the positive feelings many Americans have of the chrysanthemum (football games, house-warming presents, get-well thoughts), is that in many European countries the chrysanthemum is known as the death flower. In countries such as Belgium and Austria, the chrysanthemum is used almost exclusively as a memorial on graves.

There are so many varieties of chrysanthemums today that a system of classification is used to categorize and identify them. The classification is based on the type of florets and their growth pattern. Some chrysanthemum cultivars can be trained into different forms. Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) cultivars can be trained, in one year, into miniature forms, such as trees, that will match the character of a lifetime effort on deciduous or evergreen plants or trees. Some cultivars can be trained into a hemispherical form or, with skill and patience, they can be trained to look like a dog, a table and chair, or the human form. Cascading cultivars can be grown either as long pendulous drapes of blooms or trained as large fans, pillars, or trees.

As a landscaping plant, the chrysanthemum makes a beautiful Fall display for the home garden. With skill and artistry, many varied effects can be achieved, even when only a small growing area is available. Chrysanthemums can accentuate an entrance way; provide the Fall colors to a season-long growing bed; or dominate a growing area with the many varied shapes, sizes, and colors. Used in this fashion, chrysanthemums provide an outstanding climax to the season before the colds of winter arrive. Longwood Gardens (in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania) and the New York Botanical Garden (in Bronx, New York) are two locations that have annual displays that demonstrate many uses of the versatile and beautiful chrysanthemum.

As with all gardening efforts, it is not luck or the so-called green thumb that achieves results, but rather hard work and dirty fingernails.