The last hurrah: Korean mums

Korean mum 'Sheffield'  F.D. Richards/Flickr

Korean mum 'Sheffield'  F.D. Richards/Flickr

Here in late October, I’m well into the bitter-sweet chore of putting the garden to bed.

 The shorter days and cooler temperatures have sent potted annuals into their final tailspin. The heat-lovers like the petunias, verbenas and calibrichoas stopped producing new flowers and have gone to the compost heap. The lovely goldenrod ‘Fireworks,’ faded from gold to brown, has had a haircut with the hedge shears and even the late-blooming Montauk daisies are beginning to wither and curl.

 I’m sure it’s partly because it is so contrary to the theme of denoument that I take such foolish pleasure in having a plant that’s just coming into bloom. My Korean chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield,’ is just opening its soft apricot flowers and it’s looking – well, fresh as a daisy.

‘Sheffield´ more nearly resembles a daisy of high summer than the tight little flower buns most people visualize when they think of chrysanthemums. Mass produced by the zillions, the common mum is now thick on the ground at every garden center, farm stand and supermarket.

Familiar, yes, but these decorative mums are often disappointing. Pinched and pruned into an unnatural geometry, they look so stiff in the garden that I prefer to use them in pots or urns.

Another point, if I may carp: There´s no real truth in advertising if they are sold as “hardy” mums. It´s a term the more conscientious suppliers have abandoned since their latest cultivars, the result of complex hybrid breeding, do not reliably survive the winter.

Korean mums are a different creature entirely, steeped in mystery and taxonomic intrigue, relaxed and pristine in their habit, and hardy as a rock. They do just fine in Zone 4, found on the East Coast in northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Your New Jersey backyard in Zone 6 or 7 is practically a winter resort.

These plants look terrific in the garden, growing naturally into a loose and graceful mound without all the tedious pinching those McMums require. Their dark-green foliage stays fresh and clean all season, suffering no bug or disease problems worth mentioning.

They produce a cloud of blossoms, covering themselves with 3-inch daisy-like blossoms in luminous colors. And did I mention they lack that nose-tingling chrysanthemum aroma many find objectionable?

But, let´s move on to the checkered history. Mums were first cultivated in China in the fifth century B.C., became the imperial flower of Japan, and are highly regarded in Korea, where they figure in Jung Yang Day, a celebration of season´s end. The mums, clearly, are of Asian origin.

So how does Bristol, Conn. squeeze into the story of the “Korean” mum? Apparently this strain originated there at Bristol Nurseries in the 1930s, the point at which American chrysanthemum breeding began. Plant collectors have been known to scour the oldest gardens in Connecticut looking for surviving cultivars, much as the rose rustlers of the South haunt cemeteries in search of cuttings.

Even way back when, the Connecticut-bred Korean mums were also known as Northland daisies. Page forward a few decades and cue the taxonomists. These species-parsing namers-of-names decided a few years ago that certain mums should henceforth adopt the genus name Dendranthema.

After a year or so, they said “Forget it,” and returned the plants to the Chrysanthemum genus. Now everyone is so totally confused you can alternately find these plants listed as Chrysanthemum rubella, Dendranthema rubella, Chrysanthemum koreana and probably “the artist formerly known as Prince.”

Ordinarily, it might be useful to search under the cultivar name ´Sheffield.´ Except this self-same plant is known as ´Sheffield´ and ´Sheffield Pink.´ A surviving plant found in Connecticut was christened ´Hillside Sheffield´ and the identical cultivar discovered in an old Virginia garden was named ´Single Apricot,´ a more accurate description but no real help at all. (´Sheffield Pink´ isn´t pink but apricot and ´Sheffield Yellow´ isn´t yellow but gold, just to stay true to form.)

You can get lost in the name game or you can just ignore the whole mess and seek out one of these worthy plants for your garden. Try them; you´ll like them.

Sources

A good collection, including the ´Sheffields,´ the white or pink ´Venus´ and the lavender ´Mei Kyo,´ can be found at Lazy S´s Farm Nursery, 2360 Spotswood Trail, Barboursville, Va. 22923. See lazyssfarm.com.

Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Road, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516, has a couple — look under “fall daisies.” 919-967-0078 or nichegardens.com.

I bought mine through Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, Ohio 44057. Call 800-852-5243 or see bluestoneperennials.com.

The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has a whole garden devoted to Korean mums; check it out at nybg.org.