The Reliable Chrysanthemum

The chrysanthemum (also known as 'chrissies' or 'mums') brings colour and brightness to autumn gardens. There is a large variation in the type of chrysanthemums grown. Colourful massed effects can be obtained by growing taller varieties at the back with smaller ones in the front. The chrysanthemum is a hardy plant. The stiff stalks rise 1 to 3 feet above clumps of foliage. Cushion varieties spread up to 30 inches in diameter and may flower so profusely that the foliage is obscured.

The chrysanthemum has been called the 'flower of the East'. It was cultivated in China as a flowering herb and mentioned by Confucius about 500 years before Christianity. The pottery of the time depicted the flower much as it appears today.

The chrysanthemum was believed to have the power of life. It was believed that the roots when boiled would cure headache. In addition, young petals and sprouts were eaten in salads and the leaves were brewed for a celebratory drink. The Chinese city, Chu-Hsien (Chrysanthemum City) was named to honour the flower as 'Chu' is Chinese for chrysanthemum.

White Chrysanthemum(53537)Credit: Wikimedia

Many centuries later, around the 8th century AD, the chrysanthemum found its way to Japan where skilful gardeners patiently selected, hybridised and developed the plant well beyond its original simple beginnings. A single flowered chrysanthemum was adopted as the crest and official seal of the emperor. The highest Order of Chivalry in Japan is the Imperial Order of the Chrysanthemum. Japan also has a Festival of Happiness which incorporates National Chrysanthemum Day.

Towards the end of the 18th century this beautiful flower was introduced to France and England. In 1753, the renowned Swedish botanist, Karl Linneaus gave the chrysanthemum its botanical name taking 'chrysos' (Greek for gold) in combination with 'anthemon' (flower). All chrysanthemums belong to the Compositae, or daisy, family. Breeders in England, France, Japan and the US have developed a plethora of colours and shapes. The chrysanthemum is related to cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, dahlias and sunflowers.

Chrysanthemum blooms have two types of florets – ray florets and disc florets. Ray florets correspond to the petals on a daisy and disc florets to the centre parts of a daisy. In a chrysanthemum, the disc florets are not always apparent. Some modern varieties have different colours between the disc and ray florets or bi-coloured ray florets with different colours on the face and reverse surfaces.

The chrysanthemum is one of the longest lasting of all cut flowers. In the United States, the chrysanthemum is the most widely grown pot plant in the country and the largest commercially produced flower. It is easy to cultivate, will bloom on schedule, has a huge range of form and colour and lasts exceptionally well as a cut flower.

In Australia, the chrysanthemum is the flower of choice for Mother's Day in May. As a contrast to these positive habits, the chrysanthemum is known as the death flower in many European countries. In Belgium, Austria and some other countries, the chrysanthemum is used almost exclusively on graves.

Yellow Chrysanthemum(53536)Credit: Wikimedia

The National Chrysanthemum Society of the United States recognises a number of different varieties of blooms. The varieties are classified according to the arrangement of their petals. The giants of the chrysanthemums are 'irregular incurve' type which have a flower size of 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Plants must be disbudded to produce such large blooms.

Some of the other types are reflex, regular incurve, decorative, intermediate incurve, pompon, single and semi-double. The spider, quill and spoon chrysanthemums all have their fans as does the anemone, brush and thistle types.

Cascade chrysanthemums have a trailing habit of long flexible stems and masses of small single flowers. These are very effective trained over a wall or similar.

A moderately light loam is preferred although fairly heavy soils also give good results. Beds need to be well dug and enriched with manure or compost. Any animal manure should be old and well rotted.

Superphosphate and lime can be added before planting. Later a side dressing of a complete fertiliser will help the plants along. Regular applications of liquid manure are beneficial when the buds are developing but discontinue this once the colour starts to show.

While the plant needs some protection from the wind, they like a sunny position. Good drainage is essential. Drainage can be improved by raising beds 4 to 6 inches above the surface level. The soil should be kept slightly moist but over-watering will create problems. Chrysanthemums have a fibrous root system so apart from removing weeds the beds should not be cultivated. A mulch of some sort will have the twofold benefits of conserving soil moisture and keeping down weeds.

Propagation is by cutting, suckers or seed. Suckers appear around the parent plant and are removed when 3 to 4 inches high. Cut just below the surface to obtain a few roots if possible. Cuttings can be taken from sucker growths or stems and should be 3 to 4 inches long, short-jointed and cut below a joint. Remove the lower leaves.

Strike cuttings in a soil of light texture. You can even use coarse sand. Place the cuttings about 1 ½ inches deep and shade with hessian until they start to grow. If you strike cuttings in pots, sturdy plants will form which can then be planted in their permanent position. Use a mix of good garden loam, coarse sand, well-rotted cow manure, compost or leaf mould and a little lime and fertiliser. Place some broken crocks, cinders or gravel in the bottom to allow adequate drainage.

The larger varieties will need staking. Don't tie tightly around one stake as the plants need plenty of air movement around them.

Problems that gardeners have with chrysanthemums include leafspot, rust and nematodes. Leafspot appears as dark brown spots on the leaves while rust causes blister-like swellings which break to show dark brown dusty masses. In the early stages, nematode damage shows symptoms like leaf rust. There are commercial preparations available to combat these diseases.

Viral diseases can also cause spotted wilt, stunting or greening. Thrips and aphids also attach themselves to chrysanthemums.

There is such a variety of chrysanthemums that it isn't difficult to find a type which will suit every position and every taste.