Consider The Beauty Of Chrysanthemums
A plant's very popularity can sometimes lead to its downfall, at least among the "smart set" of plant cognoscenti who attempt to dictate horticultural taste. That's certainly the case with the chrysanthemum, especially the purple kind sold in superabundance at roadside stands and supermarkets around the country every autumn. This seasonally ubiquitous plant has undeservedly fallen to just above the level of the dandelion in many gardeners' estimations. Given the cyclical nature of horticultural fashion, though, one shouldn't worry too much about the poor chrysanthemum's fate - the mum, or chrysanth, as British gardeners often call it, has seen many ups and downs over the course of its 2,500-year history in garden cultivation.
The chrysanthemum (in recent years relabeled a tongue-twisting Dendranthema grandiflorum, now once again named Chrysanthemum morifolium) is a relatively new introduction to Western gardens, having arrived late in the 18th century. Revered for thousands of years in the Far East, the flower was mentioned by the Chinese sage Confucius in the fifth century B.C. and was actively being bred in China by the first centuries A.D. Lore tells of a certain poet and scholar, T'ao Yuan-ming, who was such a successful breeder of the plant that after his death the name of his hometown was changed to Ch'u-hsien, the City of Chrysanthemums.
The mum reached Japan by the fourth century A.D., where the gardening gentry immediately embraced it. The plant proved so popular, in fact, that in 797 it became the personal symbol of the Mikado, and the cultivation of the flower was restricted to members of the Imperial family and the uppermost nobility.
The chrysanthemum is thought to have been introduced to Europe by one Monsieur Blancard, a merchant from Marseilles who imported three cultivars - white, violet, and purple - in 1789. Others soon followed, from which numerous hybrids were derived as well as, apparently, crosses with related species. (Given the extreme length of the mum's history, its rather murky genealogy is not surprising.) Within decades, hundreds of new types became available, from small pompon varieties to large greenhouse specimens bred specifically for cut flowers. The mum proved to be a particularly valuable and welcome addition to the Victorian florist trade, because, unlike many plants, it can be forced into bloom during any season by manipulating light levels.
While the first chrysanthemum society was formed in England in 1846 (the U.S. equivalent didn't organize until 1954!), even then the plant had its detractors. Michael George Glenny, in his Handbook of Practical Gardening (1851), noted that the chrysanthemum "had nothing to recommend it but its late season of flowering and its gay colours. It has no fragrance, and withal, has not the recommendation of good habit - in the open ground it wants the support of a stake, or it will lay about." Despite such criticism, as the stalwart of the late-autumn garden, the chrysanthemum had found a home. And while the Mr. Glennys of the world could still complain about the mum's lack of fragrance, modern hybridization has by and large ameliorated most of the other flaws of the early garden types. Modern varieties are bushy, compact plants that range anywhere from inches to feet in height and come in a profusion of flower shapes and colors.
One caveat: If you want to grow mums in your garden, use the potted varieties you see for sale along the roadside or in the supermarket in the fall exclusively as annuals for deck or doorside decorations. Although often billed as hardy perennials, they require considerable attention - and luck - to make it through the winter. And even if they do survive and return, their habit often seems to revert to the lanky nature Mr. Glenny so abhorred. True hardy perennial types, along with their close cousins the asters, are available in garden centers from spring to fall. Buy these for planting in your garden, where they make invaluable additions to the autumn landscape.