Queen Mum

'Fall Delano'                                                                  Syngenta

'Fall Delano'                                                                  Syngenta

As the brisk pace of fall replaces the lazy days of summer, we’re suddenly surrounded by the vibrant, glowing colors of cheery chrysanthemum.

They’re everywhere, at farm stands, garden centers, home outlets and supermarkets. Priced to sell – as little as $2 a pot -- they’re practically irresistible. There are so many of them that you might suspect there is a plot afoot to put a pot of mums on every doorstep in America.

Give in graciously and salute Queen Mum, the reigning flower of autumn. No other late bloomer has cornered the market like this familiar plant, which ranks among the top commercially-grown flowers in America. Growers are betting that you can’t buy just one. Most of us prove them right.

It’s a long way from Everytown, USA to the imperial courtyards of ancient China and Japan, but that’s where chrysanthemums first were cultivated some 2,000 years ago. The Japanese, who probably first imported mums from China in the fourth century, made this flower as the personal emblem of the emperor . The “little people” (like us) would not have been able to grow mums without provoking royal wrath.

Chrysanthemum means literally “golden flower” from the Greek “chrysos" (gold) and “anthos” (flower). While the color range has expanded to nearly every color but blue, the plant is still “golden” since it will thrive even under the care of those with no particular gardening talent.

The appeal is partly instant gratification – lug home a half-dozen pots of mums and transforming a patio or deck into a brilliant autumn display is no trouble at all. In fact, one of their very best uses for potted mums is as substitutes for played-out summer annuals now drooping in their containers.

Mums look so neat and pretty in their pots that it’s easy to forget some simple plant truisms that work against their making it through the winter to bloom another day.

'Camille Apricot'                                                          Syngenta

'Camille Apricot'                                                          Syngenta

Most marketers have severed the word “hardy” from “mum” because breeding programs that emphasize saturated colors and prolific flower production aren’t necessarily concerned with the plant’s ability to weather the cold. Then, too, a plant acquired fully budded and ready to flower is concentrating its energies on blossoming, not on vegetative or root growth.

You can improve your chances of wintering your mums over if you plant them in the ground as soon as you get them, keep them well watered and trim back the flowers. But what fun is that? A better strategy is to treat mass-produced potted mums like temporary decorations and grow the truly perennial types -- types that are actually best planted in spring – in the garden. 

Raising your own chrysanthemums isn’t difficult but will likely give you some respect for the grower’s art. Any spot with full sun and decent soil will suit them, providing you remember to mix in a slow-release fertilizer or feed them regularly.

 An essential skill to master is “pinching,” that is, removing some of the new growth to produce bushy, compact plants with abundant flowers. Beginning when plants are six inches tall, nip off the top inch or two. This encourages the growth of side stems called laterals. When the laterals are six inches long, pinch off their tips. Repeat until mid July, when you can leave the plant in peace to form buds.

The other curious facet of mum culture is recognizing that these plants have an internal clock. They respond strongly to the balance of light and darkness, needing long nights and short days to bloom.

This stimulation is generally accomplished by nature as fall days grow shorter. But the plant’s sensitivity should alert you to the fact that artificial lighting may affect the bloom schedule. Don’t plant them under street lights or just outside well-lit house windows. Exhibition growers actually cover their budding plants with light-excluding fabric for several hours a day to have flowering coincide with flower show schedules.

Experts say that perennials mums should be lifted and divided every second year to maintain vigorous growth. It’s also a good idea to move the plants around the garden periodically to prevent soil pathogens from building up. Mums are susceptible to fungus diseases like leaf spot and powdery mildew, so a little growing room and good air circulation are essential.

Propagation couldn’t be easier. Cuttings taken in spring when the plants are 8 or 10 inches high root readily in damp sand or vermiculite. Once you see how easy it is to make lots from some, you’ll have insight into what makes the great world of mass produced mums go ‘round. You’ll have all those cuttings from pinching, after all. You only need some to have lots.


Sources for perennial mums

Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, OH 44057. Call (800) 852-5243.

Lazy S’S Farm Nursery 2360 Spotswood Trail, Barboursville, VA 22923. Fax them at (540) 832-0869 or see the website.