In the late summer people begin to buy mums in pots. They appear at the roadside nurseries, in farmers’ markets, and even out in front of supermarkets, usually about ready to burst into bloom.
Mums bloom in distinctly autumnal colors. The yellows tend to be burnished with gold. The whites tempered by blushes and the reds muted with earth tones. Even the pinks have a dustiness about them that makes them look elegantly faded like an upholstered chair bleached by the sun after decades next to the same window.
Mums are properly called chrysanthemums (genus Chrysanthemum) and they are members of the aster family (Asteraceae; also called the Compositae) like the daisies, rudbeckias, sunflowers. The wild varieties and early cultivars look like daisies, a form that is now most readily seen in Chinese and Japanese art rather than at your local flower vendor.
The National Chrysantheum Society provides a thumbnail history of the cultivation of this flower. Like so many other civilized endeavors, the Chinese were at it first. There are apparently records of chrysanthemum raising back to the 15th century B.C. It was introduced to Japan in the 5th century and remains popular there to this day as a symbol of the emperor.
Mums were introduced to Europe in the 16th century and received their common and scientific name from Karolus Linnaeus in the mid 18th century. ‘Chrysos’ means ‘golden’ in Greek and ‘anthemon’ means ‘flower.’ This refers to the color of the early cultivars that were brought west.
Over the years the original genus has been split into several genera (Argyranthemum, Leucanthemopsis, Leucanthemum, Rhodanthemum, and Tanacetum). The genus Chrysanthemum was renamed Dendranthema at some point, but in 1999 the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) restored the original name. Chrysanthemum indicum, the parent of many cultivated mums, was acknowledged to be a member of the root genus.
Over centuries of breeding the aboriginal daisy-like flower of the mum has been altered to create different forms, several of which obscure the ‘composite’ nature of the blooms. Asters are distinguished by having disk and ray flowers in one florescence; the disk forms are at the center and the rays radiate out around the disks. What appears to be a single flower is actually a cluster of many.
In most of the cultivated types of mum the ray flowers hide or nearly hide the disk flowers at the center of the bloom. Breeders must clip away some of the central ray flowers to expose the disk flowers in these varieties and thereby allow pollination.
Flower forms that harken back to the wild variety are called ‘daisy,’ ‘anemone’ and ‘spoon.’ The most familiar flower type is probably the ‘decorative,’ followed by the various kinds of ‘incurved,’ ‘reflex’ and ‘pompon,’ as well as more exotics shapes.
Although many people treat mums as perennials, especially if they purchase them in pots and then arrange the pots around their porches for a couple of months before discarding them as they become covered with snow or wither when someone forgets to water them.
In fact, they do well if plants are put in the ground in the spring in a sunny, well-drained spot, and they will come back year after year. You should ask a grower about which varieties are hardy in your area. Experts recommend divided moving them after three years to avoid disease that is prompted by overcrowding.
Mums are also excellent cut flowers, being among the longest lasting in the vase. If you have planted them in the spring, you can encourage more flowering by pinching off new growth to make the plant bushier. Stop pinching after summer begins so that the plant has enough time to set flowers. When fall arrives you will be able to cut some flowers for indoors and still have some left for the garden.