What do Japanese royalty, coal miners and the new wave of British flower farmers have in common? All have an enthusiasm for chrysanthemums, one of the few flowers still blooming its heart out in November in British allotments and gardens. When almost every other flower has packed up, chrysanthemums (aka chrysanths or ‘mums’) reach their peak in all their varied and colourful glory.
There is a chrysanth of almost every flower shape, size and colour: little rounded mums covered in sweet daisy-like blooms, and tall gangly ones ideal for the vase, topped with pompoms or spiders or dramatically recurved flowers. Some have rich glowing colours that would rival an autumnal arboretum, others are subtle, moody and instagrammable, and then there are brassy primaries, eye wincingly set off by an excellent sideline in sharp acid greens.
We have Japanese gardeners to thank for this variety. Although chrysanths were first cultivated in China, the great explosion in growing and breeding took place in Japan during the Nara and Heian Dynasties, from the early 8th to the late 12th centuries. In Japanese culture the chrysanthemum stands for perfection, longevity and rejuvenation, and is a symbol of the sun. It is an important feature of Japanese art, and is the flower of the Japanese monarchy – the head of which sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
In Britain their cultivation took a less regal direction, though perfection has still been the aim. British chrysanthemum growing reached its peak between and after the wars, when they were grown as cut flowers, a little bit of home-grown luxury among the rows of runner beans and carrots. As the fashion tailed off, the flame was kept alive by specialist growers and societies growing for shows, with only the most perfect blooms making the grade. Martyn Flint, manager of grower Chrysanthemums Direct, based in Cheshire, says that most chrysanthemum societies are in former colliery areas in the north east, the Midlands and South Wales, reflecting the fact that chrysanths were the flower of choice among miners who wanted to grow for competition. ‘Maybe they were just the sort of flower they wanted to see after being down in the dark all day,’ he says.
Perhaps, like the Japanese, those miners also saw something sun-like in these beautiful bright blooms, with their radiating petals.
The emphasis on showing seems to have left gardeners with the impression that cut flower mums are hard to grow, which is very far from the truth. They do need a sunny spot in spring and to be lifted in autumn (except in mild areas on well drained soil, where they can overwinter), but unless you are growing to show standard the rest is straightforward. You need to feed them well, give a little support to prevent them from falling over, and ‘disbud’ them – remove all side buds – if you want big single flowers rather than a spray. Only those that flower late – around now – need to be grown in a cold greenhouse, just to protect the flowers from wintry weather.
The new wave of British flower growers have realised how easy mums are and have embraced them. Martyn says that a large number of sales of plug plants for planting out in spring now come via the Flowers from the Farm movement, a co-operative of British cut flower growers who aim to sell direct to a public hungry for local, seasonal flowers. Chrysanthemums naturally extend the British season into early winter, and in quite flamboyant style.
These growers lean towards social media-friendly muted shades of coral and salmon and away from the more old-fashioned bright and gaudy colours, and it is these varieties that are now becoming popular and available. Among the early varieties that can be grown out of doors, soft, pinky coral ‘Allouise Salmon’ forms loose heads of petals, and is one of those most loved by cut flower growers.
The ‘Misty’ series – which form more rounded heads – also comes in pastel shades such as ‘Primrose’ and ‘Pearl’; ‘Enbee Wedding Honey’ is an outdoor-grown spray chrysanthemum with daisy-like flowers in pale peach. Martyn also suggests that gardeners look at the ‘Korean’ varieties which are grown just like hardy perennials, but can still be harvested as cut flowers. ‘Doctor Tom Parr’ is one of the best, in deep rosy pink with orange highlights, while ‘Ruby Mound’ is a deep maroon and fully double.
If you want to see chrysanthemum perfection in the flesh there is still time to catch the last couple of shows of the season, and see what the experts do, preening them until every petal lies just so. But this perfection is not compulsory, and the flowers are wonderful grown with a little care and then chucked into a vase, perhaps with a complementary sprig of autumn leaves. Plant some next spring, and this time next year you will have your own sun-like flowers to brighten up the gloom.
Lia Leendertz is the author of The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2020, out now.